Cyber-structural unemployment

The robots are coming…

The concept of robots arose in the early 20th century; storytellers imagined how these mechanical workers would help us out. Since the late 20th century, robotic technologies have created everything from automated production lines to cute robot dogs. And now we’re putting robots on the battlefield. Better them than us, eh?

Let’s blow our minds a little: pundits reckon the robotics industry is about where the personal computer revolution was in the early 1970s. For some perspective, imagine being transported from 1975 to the present, and seeing people talking to invisible friends on tiny, brightly coloured, mobile computers that boast apps for everything.

According to a group of experts assembled for The Economist’s ‘The World in 2012’ series, robotics will impact our economy in unexpected ways over the next 25 years. And the coming generation of robots won’t just be hardware; it’ll include a software layer that will replace a lot of jobs.

Take Google or Facebook, which have very few employees relative to their size and impact. Robots and intelligent systems pretty much do the job. At the supermarket, self-service machines are replacing checkout chicks, ATMs mean less work for bank tellers, and voice recognition means virtual assistants can answer the phone 24 hours a day without the need for a ciggy break.

There’s even a robot out there reviewing evidence and transcripts, set to replace armies of paralegals and lawyers. Then there are the 200,000 robot-assisted surgeries a year involving tiny incisions that create less tissue damage and hence a quicker recovery.

As Discern Analytics managing director Paul Saffo said, “We’re all waiting for the robotics revolution. It’s just over the horizon … Over the next few years you can expect to hear the term, ‘cyber-structural unemployment’ and it won’t be a cyclical downturn, but structural, permanent.”