Surviving the Robot Revolution

What happens after the robots come? We speak to two experts about how we might evolve once artificial intelligence (AI) and automation revolutionize the workplace


The robots are coming, or in many cases they’re already here among us. Artificial Intelligence, and mechanical assistants are set to take over as much as 70 million jobs by one estimate. Almost every industry is said to be affected from clerks to news reporters; the question many business and government decision makers are asking is how this will affect people.

“The current education system is catered towards producing job seekers. We need to adapt towards creating entrepreneurs, moving away from just solving problems to finding opportunities,” said Philipp Gerbert, Boston Consulting Group, a specialist in Artificial Intelligence and member of the G20 initiative on digitalisation and the future of work.

Job roles are set to go through an evolution, not extinction – according to the World Economic Forum, technological advancements are set to create 2.1 million new jobs. The more repetitive administrative and clerical roles will be replaced by more creative minds with specialized skills in areas such as engineering, computing and infrastructure.

Mr. Gerbert noted that technology tends to augment our roles rather than take over: “We helped traveling salesmen on donkeys throughout Asia to optimize their routes using smartphones, using some statistics to sell their goods.”

“We need to get away from this idea that I learn from age X to X,” and create systems of lifelong learning, he said. One example that might be learned from is the German apprenticeship model where people work for four days a week and go to school for one,” he said.

He was also impressed with the CEO of a large IT service provider in India who saw that outsourcing was going to disappear. “The CEO thought: I [will] ask my employees to spend half their time trying to automate their jobs, half their times learning a new skill. I’ll train 170,000 employees in design thinking,” said Mr. Gerbert.

German software giant SAP also shares this vision as the workplace as classroom. The company provides employees with access to online platforms for learning, boot camps, re-training, rotations, fellowships and sabbaticals, said Adaire Fox-Martin President, SAP, Asia Pacific.

“There will be new opportunities. Jobs that we don’t even think of will come into existence,” said Mr. Fox-Martin. It’s about creating flexibility in learning for the work force.

Re-training also need not be a long, expensive and drawn out ordeal. Mr. Gerbert sees the future in nano degrees: “People get little skills that they acquire them in a rather effective way… increase the flexibility of the work force,” he said. Back to the travelling salesman on a donkey: “It’s very easy for him without enormous re-training to do another job,” said Mr. Gerbert.

Getting an extended education need not be expensive either with the availability of online courses. “Some of Stanford’s best classes are available online. It requires energy, but doesn’t require so much money,” he said.

Organizations like SAP are also re-thinking the nature of employment itself, looking to draw from non-traditional talent pools – like mothers returning to the work force or the autistic. They look to bring on people with specific skills more on a project-by-project basis.

Technology is giving rise to the freelancer economy in which 50% of Americans are expected to participate in by 2020 according to Forbes. This would give rise to greater participation in the workforce with more opportunities for those that have a greater skill-set, although often with less stability and guarantee of a well-paying job.

But this begs the question: In so many economies where a full-time job is the guarantor of access to good healthcare, retirement protection and the like, where does it leave these workers of the future?

“Healthcare is not a difficult problem to solve,” said Mr. Gerbert. “In Germany the system is decoupled from any specific job. There’s state and private insurance, and a minimum state guarantee.”

Universal income is not an option Mr. Gerbert sees as practicable. “The problem with basic income is it’s difficult to determine who’s entitled to it,” he said. In Switzerland, a referendum was held on whether to introduce a basic income – but it was rejected with over a 60% majority, it would also only work in a very clean society,” he said.

A generational change will also eventually take place, bringing in a group of individuals that have been trained to be more creative and critical. Such a change will only take place once education institutions revamp their approach at a more foundational level. STEM, a curriculum based education featuring the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics that aims to prepare students to thrive in a digitized workplace –including an emphasis of skills such as team work and critical thinking. Until such an approach enters the mainstream, most educators will continue to use outdated models that are more suited to factory production lines of the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century. So who will the coming robot revolution impact most? Young people, racial minorities and those without high skill training are likely to suffer the most, according to a report by Darrell M. West vice president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution a US-based think tank.

And are we prepared? “There’s a lot of intelligent discussion, what I don’t find is intelligent action,” lamented Mr. Gerbert. “The honest answer is the jury is out…as to how many and to what extent will be displaced.”