Will robots rule the world of work?

Will robots rule the world of work?

Robots could have a positive impact on occupational health and safety if they’re used in dangerous operations. But would these machines eventually steal too many human jobs and drastically disrupt the labour market?

There’s no need to panic about a pending robot takeover just yet, according to a new study from Brigham Young University* sociology professor Eric Dahlin. Dahlin’s research found that robots aren’t replacing humans as quickly as most people think, but we are prone to severely exaggerating the rate of robot takeover.

To understand the relationship between job loss and robots, Dahlin surveyed nearly 2 000 individuals about their perceptions of jobs being replaced by robots. Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of employees whose employers have replaced jobs with robots, and whether an employer had ever replaced their job with a robot.

The study, published in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, found that those who had been replaced by a robot (about 14%), estimated that 47% of all jobs have been taken over by robots. Those who hadn’t experienced job replacement, meanwhile, still estimated that robots had supplanted 29% of jobs.

“Overall, our perceptions of robots taking over is greatly exaggerated,” says Dahlin. “Those who hadn’t lost jobs overestimated by about double, and those who had lost jobs overestimated by about three times.”

Attention-grabbing headlines predicting a dire future for employment have likely overblown the threat of a robot takeover in the workplace, with Dahlin noting that humans’ fear of being replaced by automated work processes dates back to the early 1800s.

“We expect novel technologies to be adopted without considering all of the relevant contextual impediments such as cultural, economic, and government arrangements that support the manufacturing, sale, and use of the technology,” he says. “But just because a technology can be used for something does not mean that it will be implemented.”

Closer to home, the sentiment is rather different. The majority of employees in South Africa surveyed by global cybersecurity solutions provider Kaspersky (92%) believe robots will eventually replace humans in their industry.

According to Kaspersky’s research on employees’ opinions of the consequences of automation and the increased use of robots, employees in South Africa believe that as robots improve, fewer jobs will remain for humans. However, the majority of local employees surveyed (74%) still believe robots should be more widely used across different industries.

Importantly, people believe robotisation will increase cybersecurity risks. Most local respondents (89%) believe robots can be hacked, and 53% are aware of such incidents in their company or others. In South Africa, 42% of employees surveyed believe that current cybersecurity measures are insufficient to protect robots in different industries.

“More and more tasks are done by robots, and they are potentially vulnerable to cyberthreats. Kaspersky sees its mission in ensuring that cybersecurity remains at the forefront of robot technology adoption, helping to tackle the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities that robotisation presents,” says Emad Haffar, head of technical experts at Kaspersky.

“We asked the respondents to judge not only how convenient and efficient robots are to use in production, but also how safe they are. It turned out that many employees believe that using robots causes risks,” he continues. “Robots are going to become the prime vector for cyberattacks in the coming years, and they need protection here and now. Before one integrates robots into production, one needs to guarantee network intrusion robustness and overall network security. It’s also important to ensure protection of robotic controllers, automation systems, and supply chains.”

* Brigham Young University is a private US research university in Provo, Utah.  

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Jaco de Klerk

JACO DE KLERK is editor of SHEQ MANAGEMENT and assistant editor of its sister publication FOCUS on Transport and Logistics. It’s nearly a decade later, and he is still as passionate about all things SHEQ-related since his first column, Sound Off, which he wrote for this magazine as well.
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