Fired by robots – my reply to Roberto Savio’s call for debate
Dear Roberto, I take up your challenge and enter into the debate. As an electrical engineer, specialised in process automation, I feel obliged to make my point.
There is no doubt that the automation and the arrival of robots in many production processes will replace and make redundant a high number of jobs. As you pointed out, however, this is not the first time in history that technical and scientific development disrupts the work distribution in advanced society. You remembered the dramatic textile industrial revolution in Great Britain, as well as the offset printing which caused the loss of thousands of jobs in past centuries. The automation and robots will cause similar revolutions, but they can hardly be seen as the main responsible for job losses and unemployment.
Let me look to a number of examples. Greece is the country in Europe suffering the highest job loss in the last decade. It had in 2015 a 25 % unemployment rate, more than twice than Italy, a country where unemployment is also a big problem. Do you see a lot of robots in Greece? No, the cause for the collapse of the Greek employment is purely financial. The debts accumulated by the Greek government brought the country near to bankruptcy. The creditors had, through the European troika, the power to impose a dramatic austerity plan that brought the majority of the Greek population into poverty and pushed the unemployment rate to unbearable levels.
As an Argentinean you may remember that 20 years ago Argentinean bonds were traded with a 13% interest rate. Somebody who purchased bonds with such high interest rates, would certainly admit that he is taken a certain of risk, I suppose. But no, when Argentina declared insolvency and tried to renegotiate the debts, bond holder reacted furiously, and even dragged the Argentinean government into a New York court to have their full money back. The result was, again, poverty and unemployment.
In Italy at the end of the 2nd Word War, only three generation ago, 48% of the population was employed or earned their living in agriculture. Now it’s less than 4%. This dramatic revolution of the labour market took place in less than 70 years, was indeed fostered by technical progress but did not drag the country into unemployment and poverty.
The conclusions I would like to submit to your kind consideration are two. The first is that such large scale labour revolutions have happened in the past and will happen in the future, we will continue to fight for solutions and there will be a number of workers that will lose their job, if they are not ready to adapt themselves to changed requirements.
The second is that the main responsible for unemployment is the distribution of wealth, the inequality fostered by financial speculation. This is where governments must take action and regulate the financial market, in order to avoid the dramatic set back experienced, for example, by the Greek population.
As professor Robert Riener of the Swiss Federal Technical High School ETH puts it, the Cyborgs and robots are seen as a nasty threat to our society. But this is caused by the Hollywood movies. In reality, explains Riener, “we are still very far from the described dangers and we need not fear computer performance or the rationalization of jobs and actually, the great possibilities and opportunities overtake any theoretical dangers”.
Please watch here professor Riener’s speech at the TEDx Talks held in Zurich on February 13th, 2018.