Sat, Jan 21, 2017 - Page 10 News List

Davos raises concern over robots’ job impact

Reuters, DAVOS, Switzerland

A robot automatically sweeps food toward two dairy cows at an automated farm exhibit at the International Green Week food and agriculture fair in Berlin on Thursday. The fair opened yesterday and runs until Jan. 29.

Photo: AFP

Open markets and global trade have been blamed for job losses over the past decade, but global CEOs say the real culprits are increasingly machines.

Moreover, while business leaders gathered at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, relish the productivity gains technology can bring, they said that the collateral damage to jobs needs to be addressed more seriously.

From taxi drivers to healthcare professionals, technologies such as robotics, driverless cars, artificial intelligence and 3D printing mean more and more types of jobs are at risk.

Adidas AG, for example, aims to use 3D printing in the manufacture of some running shoes.

“Jobs will be lost, jobs will evolve and this revolution is going to be ageless. It’s going to be classless and it’s going to affect everyone,” Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co CEO Meg Whitman said.

So while some supporters of US President Donald Trump and Brexit may hope new government policies will bring lost jobs back to the US’ Rust Belt or Britain’s industrial north, economists estimate 86 percent of US manufacturing job losses are actually down to productivity, according to the WEF’s annual risks report.

“Technology is the big issue and we don’t acknowledge that,” Mark Weinberger, chairman of consultancy EY, said on Thursday, adding there was a tendency to always blame trading partners.

The political backdrop is prompting CEOs to take more seriously the challenge of long-life training of workforces to keep up with the exponential growth of technological advances.

“I think what we’re reaching now is a time when we may have to find alternative careers through our lifetime,” Microsoft Corp chief executive Satya Nadella said.

Over the past decade, more jobs have been lost to technology than any other factor. John Drzik, head of global risk at insurance broker Marsh, expects more of the same.

“That is going to raise challenges, particularly given the political context,” said Drzik, who helped compile the WEF report.

Compared with clamping down on immigration by tightening borders, dealing with the impact of technology destroying jobs is something that is perhaps even less easily controlled.

While many advanced technologies remain more expensive than low or medium-skilled labor in the near term, the shift is likely to accelerate as costs come down.

Tech advancements require governments, businesses and academic institutions to develop more educated and highly skilled workforces, executives in Davos said.

However, this shift to skilled workers also widens the income gap and fuels growing inequality.

Jonas Prising, CEO of staffing firm ManpowerGroup, said that US unemployment is only about 2 to 2.5 percent among college-educated people, but 9 or 10 percent among those with low or no skills.

“The idea that we would ban automation as part of an evolution within the manufacturing industry, is not really part of the discussion,” Prising said.

He pointed to policies in countries like Denmark and Italy, where there is a focus on employability of workers.

“If we don’t own responsibility [for the problem of displaced workers], it’s only going to get bigger,” Procter & Gamble chief executive David Taylor said.

The scope of the employment risk from what the WEF calls the “fourth industrial revolution” which “blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres” is unclear.

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