Robots can do for us what machines did for farmers


Policymakers in the UAE are smart to throw their support behind a robotic future, as Sultan Al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy, did last Monday in a speech at a World Economic Forum conference in Abu Dhabi. He promised to bring robot laboratories to schools as part of a larger focus on science in education “to change how young people think”.

It’s a refreshing attitude that should help to counter the flood of angst about robots, smart software and automation that permeates both popular entertainment and the news media.

If it’s not superheroes fighting killer robots in summer blockbuster movies, it’s daily headlines warning of machines stealing yet more jobs currently being done by humans. It’s all contributing to ill-ease about a future that could be marked by massive unemployment or even possible extinction.

The angst around employment is particularly pressing. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, predicts that up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by software or robots by 2025. A recent study from Oxford University says a third of today’s jobs in the United Kingdom could be automated within 20 years.

The truth is, many of the jobs that will be eliminated are ones that almost no one wants anyway. Fast food cooks, bartenders, taxi drivers – such occupations help to pay the bills for many people, but rarely have they been aspirational professions.

Neither is – or was – farming. In 1900, three-quarters of the United States’ population worked on farms. Today, after generations of continually improving automation, it’s closer to 1%. Even that is shrinking as robots encroach further into the process. Pretty soon, all food production will be handled by machines.

There aren’t many downsides. Farming is hard, physical work that demands long hours, which is why there aren’t too many children who want to be farmers when they grow up.

The problem today is the same as it always has been. Nineteenth-century farmers weren’t able to envision the factory work their grandchildren would be doing, and certainly not the office jobs that would morph into. The idea of people working as web designers or social media consultants, as many do today, was simply inconceivable.

Similarly, even the most prescient futurists today have trouble imagining what people will be doing 100 years from now – but chances are good it will be better, because automation frees up people to focus on what really interests them.

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