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Monday, September 15, 2014

Strategic CSR - Robots

There has been a lot of debate in the media recently about how robots are eradicating certain jobs and, in the process, causing greater inequality. The commentary I have seen tends to focus on the threat to lower-earning jobs—that they are the most expendable and easily replaceable, and that they are resulting in greater long-term unemployment among blue-collar communities. This trend is noted in the article in the url below, but with a subtle twist:
"A growing number of economists – including Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in a new book The Second Machine Age – argue that robots and algorithms are poised to make inroads into labour markets."
Mostly, this threat is evolving due to robots' ability (or the scientists and engineers that build them) to overcome the problem of "slam":
"… simultaneous localisation and mapping [slam], the process of mentally building up a map of a new location, including hazards, as you move through it."
As a result of overcoming slam, along with programs for improved language recognition, the ability of computers to replace human activities (beyond specific, repetitive functions) has increased markedly. As a result of this increased functionality, rather than threatening low-skilled jobs, the author poses a slightly more complex argument, suggesting the relationship between mechanization and employment is curvilinear. This trend was first identified about a decade ago in the UK:
"Alan Manning of the London School of Economics coined the term 'job polarisation' a decade ago, when he discovered that employment in the UK had been rising for people at the top and the bottom of the income scale. There was more demand for lawyers and burger flippers. It was middle-skill jobs that were disappearing. The same trend is true in the US, and is having the predictable effect on wages: strong gains at the top, some gains at the bottom, stagnation in the middle."
This threat is multi-pronged and is not only apparent in the West:
"Typists, clerks, travel agents and bank tellers find their skills less valued. Mechanisation now dominates agriculture, large-scale construction and manufacturing. We tend to imagine that manufacturing jobs have disappeared to China; in fact, manufacturing employment in China has been falling. Even the Chinese must fear the robots."
And, while efficiency will advance as a result, the main consequences will be social:
"Of course cheap, ubiquitous computing power has brought many good things – and will bring more. The question is whether we are equipped to deal with the possibility that in future, there will be people who – despite being willing and fit to work – have no economic value as employees. By the time today's 10-year-olds have their degrees, computers could be a hundred times cheaper and smarter than they are today. A future full of robot servants could be a bright future indeed, but only if we can adapt our institutions quickly enough."
Take care
David Chandler & Bill Werther
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The robots are coming and will terminate your jobs
By Tim Harford
December 28-29, 2013
Financial Times
Late Edition – Final