Once a scenario fit only for a science fiction thriller, today many workers are seeing their jobs being taken by robots. Factories in Korea already have 4.78 robots per every 100 workers. The global average is around 0.66, but as this number grows the cost of implementing robot workers shrinks, making them a viable and cheaper alternative to human workers.

According to recent data, about 57% of all jobs around the world are at risk from automation, and in developing countries the risk is much higher. In Ethiopia, 88% of jobs are immediately at risk of automation, and in China the figure is close to 77%. While certain industries are almost entirely automated already, like manufacturing, many other jobs from short-order cook to insurance underwriter are expected to become fully automated in the next few decades. 

Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Little children are encouraged to consider their future careers from a young age, and a political manifesto has never been written, by the left or the right in any country, that didn’t at least mention the promise of job creation. Equally, over the past 7 decades the discourse has revolved around efficiency and productivity, and there has been a concerted effort to modernise workplaces through the use of new technologies. 

Automation is the use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility. While we frequently speak of robots in terms of heavy machinery, a process – such as the use of a simple algorithm to make a sale – qualifies as well, as long as no human was involved in the process. It seems like our work culture and our thirst for innovation are at odds, but as the cost of automation comes down, innovation will almost certainly come out on top.

“If you go back in history to the 50s, 60s and 70s, experts – like economists, sociologists and anthropologists – have been predicting for ages that the robots will come and that they will take our jobs. But somehow it hasn’t happened yet,” explains Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists. “Capitalism has been able to come up with new, even more meaningless jobs for us to do. That’s the reason we will need to redefine what work actually is.”

Rutger Bregman, Historian & Author

“Capitalism has been able to come up with new, even more meaningless jobs for us to do. That’s the reason we will need to redefine what work actually is.” – Rutger Bregman

The trend for automation has its roots in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Steam power, electricity and the beginning of a period of relative peace worldwide meant that goods could be produced faster and shipped around the world with ease. This trend endured for the better part of the twentieth century, but as factories and farms became more and more automated, labour costs grew exponentially as well. As an example, it costs around £4 an hour to operate a robot in a manufacturing setting, making it hard for Europe to compete as total labour costs there amount to around £40 an hour. Even the cheaper labour of a country like China (£9 an hour) struggles to make its case against automation. 

Since the 90s, globalisation has been mainly about the sharing of information and technology, and the process of automation has sped up and moved beyond manual labour to engulf the skilled service industry. In 2004, Princeton University academics F Levy and RJ Murnane predicted that difficulties in replicating human perception meant that driverless cars were all but impossible, saying, “Executing a left turn against oncoming traffic involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine discovering the set of rules that can replicate a driver’s behaviour.”