Us and the robots (in that order)

Employment & Income,Inclusive Economy23 Apr 2015Robert Went

Robots have long been part of the world around us, but soon there really will be no avoiding them – when they no longer only work for us, but also with us. How are we going to do that together?  

In the year 2000, the word ‘robot’ was in the news 1,900 times in the UK. By 2013, that had risen to no less than 15,000. In the Netherlands, too, the newspapers have been full of stories about robots since a ‘historic’ speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Employment Lodewijk Asscher in September. But what exactly is a robot?

Answers to that question keep changing. Most people would first think of the now famous children’s toy robot Zoomer, as it closely resembles an animal. A care robot that looks like a human is easily recognizable. But what about an ATM, the GPS in a car, the check-in points at a train station, or a smart thermostat? In some respects, they are not so different to Zoomer. They manipulate the environment. And more and more robots are smarter than Zoomer, learn from our behaviour and adapt to suit it. For example, at what time rooms in our house should be warmer or colder. Our cars and planes can now make autonomous decisions and are therefore ‘robots’, it’s just that we don’t see it that way. Robots are already all around us and many more applications are being found for them: the Internet of Things will soon connect up our refrigerators, cars, clothes, headphones and who knows what else.

No one knows how much of that we will notice and how fast it will happen, despite all the stories both applauding the arrival of robots and warning of impending doom. But, either way, we are going to see more industrial robots, service robots and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) in the future.

Should we worry?

Marjolein ten Hoonte, director of labour and corporate social responsibility at the Randstad employment agency in the Netherlands, reads, talks and thinks all week about the questions and challenges of the future. Our most important question for her: should we worry here in the Netherlands? Are we prepared for how robots and future automation are going to affect us? She doesn’t want to say what jobs are going to be under threat and which ones will be more in demand. “That is pure speculation and it makes no sense to make people unnecessarily frightened.” But she does see that many jobs are disappearing in the middle of the labour market as a result of digitization, including assistant accountants and mortgage advisers.

Automation is especially having a ruthless impact in the banking sector in the Netherlands. Almost 9,000 jobs were scrapped in one year at ABN Amro, Rabobank, ING and Achmea. Consumers increasingly do their banking online and computer systems are linked together, making IT specialists, call-centre staff and administrative staff superfluous. “There’s more a revolution than an evolution going on in customers’ behaviour,” said ING’s CEO Ralph Hamers about the recently announced reorganization of his bank.

And there’s plenty more to come. In a report published last summer, the benefits agency UWV predicted that 15,000 jobs will disappear in the financial sector over the next five years. According to Bas ter Weel, deputy director of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), the figures for 1998 to 2010 also show that employment in the middle segment will fall. The situation in the Netherlands is not yet, however, as bad as in some other countries.

Anyone talking to the experts at the OECD, the rich countries’ club based in Paris, will hear the same story: jobs in the middle of the market are increasingly under pressure. Everyone is concerned about this, as we take it for granted in the rich West that our prosperity and democracy flourish with a stable middle class. A middle class that can count on a rising standard of living – and since the crisis of 2008, this has no longer been the case. And now, precisely at a time when a middle class is beginning to develop in many emerging countries, more jobs in the middle segment are coming under pressure here at home.

Don’t panic!

There is no reason for alarm – yet. These developments are by no means moving as speedily or smoothly as we are told they are, or as we think or fear. Take Foxconn for example, the company that employs Chinese workers to assemble our Iphones and Ipads. They announced that they were going to replace 1,000,000 (a million!) people in their factories with robots. This news made quite an impression, but they seem to have changed their mind at Foxconn (for the time being). Replacing people with robots is not as simple as they thought, so they have put their plans on ice and are now hard at work looking for new employees. And we are still talking about the Internet of Things, but all those exciting-looking lamps and refrigerators that automatically do the shopping are still no closer to communicating with each other. There is still no single business that knows how to integrate them all and organize them into something that is of real use to the average consumer.

As for when it will be possible to drive a car without a driver, opinions vary widely. Apart from the technical issues of operating a car, there are ethical and legal questions that need to be addressed: about liability, insurance, who makes the algorithm stating whether a driver should be saved in an impending accident, or what happens if a child runs into the road… Just because something is technically possible does not mean society is ready for it.

The fact that all kinds of robots are being developed around the world does not present only opportunities; it also brings risks. It creates not only winners, but also losers: what will happen if there is no work at some point in the future for perhaps large groups of people? This is what minister Asscher was talking about in his speech. And if we want to answer that question, we will need to look further than Asscher (who is responsible for work and security) and involve his colleague Henk Kamp, the Minister for Economic Affairs, who deals with the private sector. In fact, robots will demand the attention of nearly all ministers.

Let’s ROCK

Achieving coherence in government policy, across all ministries, is no simple matter. But if there is one area in which it is really crucial, it is robots. This theme is future-oriented, important to the growth potential of the Dutch economy in the coming decades, threatens our jobs and our wellbeing, and poses countless unanswered questions.

That means it is high time for the ROCK, the consultation group on coordinating government policy on robotics. All the relevant ministers participate in the ROCK and coordinate their research and activities, together with regional authorities, civil society organizations, businesses (including SMEs), knowledge institutes and other relevant actors. So there is enough to be done for the time being, for parents, employees, employers and civil servants. Let’s get to work!

This article is an abridged version of the second part of the series ‘De economie van overmorgen’ (The economy of the day after tomorrow), that Hella Hueck (RTL Z) and economist Robert Went of the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) are making for RTL News and RTL Z. The long read can be read in Dutch and watched at