Comment: Will workplace robots cost more jobs than they create?

Noel Sharkey is professor of artificial intelligence and robots, and professor of public engagement, at the University of Sheffield.

Will workplace robots cost more jobs than they create?

By Professor Noel Sharkey, 30 June 2014

There has been a persistent problem with automation creating unemployment since the Luddites tried to stop labour-saving machinery in 1811.

The important question is whether robotic automation will increase unemployment or merely change the nature of the workplace.

We faced the same challenges when the rise of the computer in the 1980s put type-setters and many others out of work. But we recovered well and different types of jobs were created.

Will this be the same with the current robotics revolution? No one can truly answer that. Will robots take on jobs that humans are now doing?

Undoubtedly – especially the dull, repetitive, dirty and dangerous jobs. But robots will also create many new jobs for controlling, repairing, supervising and programming them.

We just don’t know if the number of jobs gained will be as large or greater than the number lost over the long run.

What we do know is that in the short run many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs will go; jobs that people rely on to earn their crust and feed their families.

That could be a tragic and ruinous injustice for many but how can we prevent it. The Luddites certainly failed miserably.

There is great robotics talent in UK Universities with enormous potential to bring the UK back to hi-tech glory if funding and resources are dramatically increased.

However, we need to put thought and humanity into decision about the direction of funded robotics research in the UK.

The robot revolution is coming and we need to manage it effectively by thinking of the consequences in advance.