What will happen if robots replace human work?

We can see an ever increasing use of robots to replace human workers. This opens the way for a society that depends mostly on machine labor, but what does this mean for humans? Will we all enjoy the fruits of robot labor, or just a few billionaires? 

The International Federation of Robotics released a report, that shows that the number of robots sold per year increased from around 113 000 units in 2008 to 294 000 units in 2016. They also estimate that until 2020 this number will climb up to more than 520 000 units. In the US alone the sales of robots increased massively to $13,1 billion in 2016.


The example of a Chinese factory

Even with today’s technology most jobs in production can be replaced by robotic systems.

It is clear that we can see a massive increase in the use of robotic systems, increased automation and artificial intelligence in the industry but. This will certainly increase productivity, which although it goes alongside with high investment costs attract more and more companies to walk this path. The example of Chinese factory from Dongguan which replaced 90% of its workers with robotic systems underlines the changes really good. After the change this factory witnessed an increase in production by 250%, as well as in its quality and a decrease in defects by 80% . Luo Weiqiang, the general manager thinks that he will soon be able to cut the remaining 60 workers down to 20, which is around 3% of the original workforce!


The decrease of human labor

There are strong indications that in this century we will witness a massive decrease of the need for human labor. Companies make still high profits with low-paid human labor as we can see with the growth of industry in Africa. But it is also important to note, that around 2 times as much industrial robots were bought in the Asian market as in Europe and the Americas together, and Asia is not known to have the most expensive workforce.

The global management consulting firm McKinsey writes in a very interesting article:

Sooner or later robotic systems will also take over complicated human labor, like this Surgery robot.

To understand the scope of possible automation in the manufacturing sector as a whole, we conducted a study of manufacturing work in 46 countries in both the developed and developing worlds, covering about 80 percent of the global workforce. Our data and analysis show that as of 2015, 478 billion of the 749 billion working hours (64 percent) spent on manufacturing-related activities globally were automatable with currently demonstrated technology. These 478 billion working hours represent the labor equivalent of 236 million out of 372 million full-time employees—$2.7 trillion out of $5.1 trillion of labor—that could be eliminated or repurposed, assuming that demonstrated technologies are adapted for use in individual cases and then adopted. These figures suggest that, even though manufacturing is one of the most highly automated industries globally, there is still significant automation potential within the four walls of manufacturing sites, as well as in related functional areas such as supply chain and procurement.

In addition, a 2013 study done by the Oxford University of Engineering shows that a number of other jobs are also likely to be automated such as cashier (97%) or taxi driver (89%) . The decrease of human labor goes hand in hand about the role of robots and AI in our society, read more about this here.


What does this mean for our future?

But what will happen to the sacked workers? We all know what happens to those who are run over by technological progress in today’s world: they are simply crushed and left to live a life in poverty and misery. It was the same when industrial agriculture destroyed small farmers or factory production replaced craftsmanship. Is the working class the next in line to be crushed by the development of capitalism?

Will a fusion between humans, AI and robotic systems be the future of high qualified work?

The end of the working class can happen in two ways. One option is that it will be replaced by machines and completely marginalized, contributing to the massive inequality of our society and making it probably impossible to ever change it. In such a future a small group of privileged upgraded humans (i.e. cyborgs) would work for a tiny amount of companies and the vast majority of humans would be apart of the economic process and therefore power.

The other option would be that our society decides to go the next step in social development, to rule that the fruits of non-human labor should be the property of all of humankind who collectively contributed to its development. In such a future we would not be threatened by the replacement of human jobs by machines because it would mean that we could focus on funnier things like space exploration, culture, social contribution or taking care of nature.

Future Magazine prefers obviously the second option, but we as humankind have to develop strategies to make this future reality!

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Author: Johannes Wiener

Focused on social development, Architecture, Art and Nature. Landscape designer currently studying architecture. “We need to develop new ideas for the future of mankind, which focus on living in symbiosis with all life and becoming mature as a species"