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Are the Robots Coming for our Jobs?

One of the key measures of the health of the US economy is the jobs figures. They come out at the start of each month, and they’re seen as a crucial barometer. For example, there was widespread pessimism about January’s figures: ‘experts’ thought that US employers would only add 133,000 ‘hires’ in the month. In the event, 467,000 jobs were added as the US economy shrugged off the impact of the Omicron variant.

Of course, sometimes the reverse happens. The jobs figures disappoint – and it’s widely seen as bad news for the broader US economy.

There is, though, one ‘jobs figure’ that seems almost certain to go in only one direction: upwards. That is the number of robots ‘employed’ in the US.

2021 was a record year for robots. According to A3 – the trade group representing the manufacturers of robots, more correctly known as the Association for Advancing Automation – American companies spent $2bn adding 40,000 robots to the workforce. That works out to $50,000 – or £38,000 at today’s exchange rate – per robot.

Economically, you can see the sense in it. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average wage in the UK is just under £32,000 per year. But a robot doesn’t need holidays. It doesn’t need a staff canteen or an HR department – and it doesn’t phone in sick.

So we’re unquestionably going to see more robots coming into the workforce, on both sides of the Atlantic. As machine learning and artificial intelligence accelerate they’re going to become more sophisticated as well, capable of doing more and more jobs that were once seen as the preserve of humans.

So the question is obvious: could a robot take your job?

Traditionally, the automotive industry has been seen as the ‘home’ of robots. As recently as 2016, more than twice as many robots were sold to US car makers as were sold to all other industry sectors combined.

Now, however, use of robots is expanding rapidly across all sectors – a trend accelerated by the pandemic, which has caused a shortage of workers in key areas. Food processing plants and e-commerce have been big buyers of robots. DCL, a logistics company with five fulfillment centers in the US, says their lines with robots can operate with 50% less people – and are 20% more efficient.

The answer to the question is simple. Yes, a robot could take your job – and the more your job is susceptible to automation, the more at risk it is.

Of course, there will be plenty of teething problems along the way – the robot security guard that reversed into a company’s ornamental fountain and ‘drowned’ itself – but robotics, machine learning and AI are only going to improve. And those robots are never going to need a tea break…

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