Since the Industrial Revolution, or arguably earlier, automation (or mechanisation, as it was known back then) has been a source of worry as it has permeated every aspect of modern life and work. References to this shared concern abound; evoking sadness – such as when Charlie Bucket’s father was replaced by a robot at the toothpaste factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and fear – in how the film I, Robot made us hesitate to even turn on our school calculators.
Today, a new global study from the Pew Research Center has quantified how deep those well-documented fears run – especially in Argentina, where many said they are more worried than hopeful about the prospect of robots and computers one day being able to do much of the work that's done by humans today. In one headline statistic, 89 percent of the Argentines quizzed said they feared increased automation would make it harder for ordinary people to find jobs.
Most people believe that robots may be doing the majority of work done by humans within the next 50 years. According to 40 percent of those interviewed in Argentina, this will definitely happen.
The Pew study delves into the opinions of citizens across 10 countries, assessing their overarching concerns about the disruptions that automation could have in the workplace. The study, carried out in May and August of this year, is comprised of surveys carried out in nine countries with supplementary analysis from previous investigations in the US (dating as far as 2015).
The main takeaway? Most people believe that robots may be doing the majority of work done by humans within the next 50 years. According to 40 percent of those interviewed in Argentina, this will definitely happen (42 percent answered that it will “probably” happen), but throughout the study, Pew shows that the Argentine public doesn’t consider this to be a good thing.
Not everyone’s so down on automation, of couse. One of the main arguments for its progression is that further development creates opportunities, allowing new jobs to be created as the job market and our concept of work evolve. In an interview last week with the Times, US Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta argued: “What really happened is that machines do the harder, more repetitive work and empower people to do better work [...] human ingenuity has found ways to leverage technology to create more jobs.”
Remember how Mr. Bucket gets another job with a better salary actually fixing the machine that replaced him in the first place? Apparently, most Argentines think that heartwarming ending could only exist in Roald Dahl’s world – only 28 percent considered that there would be new, better-paying jobs as a result of robots doing work currently carried out by humans.
OUTWEIGH THE BENEFITS
In fact, Argentines overall seem to consider that the downsides of having robots replace humans in the workplace would far outweigh the benefits. Over eight in ten believe that a) it would be harder for people to even get a job and b) it would exacerbate the inequalities between rich and poor. To add to the pessimistic panorama, only 37 percent consider that automation would lead to a more efficient economy.
This pessimism would find greater disillusionment in the World Bank’s “Digital Dividends” study which posited in 2016 that over two-thirds of jobs in Argentina (alongside many other developing countries) are susceptible to being replaced by automation.
Another element explored by Pew was the extent in which the public’s perception of the economy affected their outlook on the likelihood of improved employment: of those Argentines who consider that the national economy is in good shape, 42 percent believed that automation will lead to new, better-paying jobs. That number drops to 26 percent among those who believe that the economy is in bad shape. Essentially, the worse you think the economy is doing, the less you would think automation would help with employment. Bear in mind that this survey was conducted in May/August, so it’s possible that these numbers will have changed, as the country’s economic context has shifted since then.
Of those Argentines who consider that the national economy is in good shape, 42 percent believed that automation will lead to new, better-paying jobs.
The study also looked into how much responsibility each country assigned to different actors to prepare the workforce for changes due to technological advancement. For Argentines, the highest-ranking institutions are governments and schools: 79 percent of interviewees said that they had “a lot” of responsibility to make sure that the country’s workforce is prepared. Coming in a close second are workers themselves, with 72 percent also placing “a lot” of responsibility on individuals to keep up with the times.
This blend of government initiative and personal advancement as a potential solution is fairly common when it comes to discussing the effects of automation worldwide.
This idea was echoed in the conclusions of the G20 Education and Employment Ministerial Meeting, held last weekend in Mendoza Province. During the press conference following the summit, Government Labour Secretary Jorge Triaca emphasised “the importance of designing public policies based on lifelong professional training” when faced with technological changes that will require new skill sets for different jobs.
The aforementioned World Bank document also says that should policymakers “encourage skill upgrading” in this way, the predicted automation of two-thirds of all jobs would not be a cause for despair at all, but a big opportunity. With the Argentine unemployment rate currently at 9.1%, one would hope the G20 proposals are met.
Pew Research Center itself does not suggest methods to counteract future workplace disruption caused by automation: however, there is no getting around the fact that there will be economic and political consequences to this process.
In the end, there is no Golden Ticket: there’s a great need to come up with human tools in order to deal with the new reality – and it’s unlikely that Siri could help us out on this one.