The robot revolution

February 20, 2017

Steam, electricity and computing each sparked an industrial revolution and all left their mark on the way people and societies function; enabling mass production, centralising populations and delivering digital capabilities to billions of people across the globe.

Now, according to the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab, we are on the cusp of a “fourth industrial revolution” – a surge of new technologies that promise a fundamental change to the way people live, work and relate to one another.

In a recent article for the Journal of Wild Culture, Prof Schwab says this latest revolution is characterized by “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres” and is “unlike anything humankind has experienced before”.

“The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent... and the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance,” Schwab says. “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited.

“Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants.

“Engineers, designers, and architects are combining design, materials engineering and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.”

The future of work

The fourth industrial revolution, combined with other socio-economic and demographic changes, will transform labour markets in the next five years. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report estimates that by 2020, 35% of core job skills will change, while some jobs will disappear altogether and new jobs will be created.

The report predicts strong employment growth across architecture and engineering as well as computer and mathematical fields, a moderate decline in manufacturing and production roles and a significant decline in office and administrative jobs.

“The expected global decline in total manufacturing and production roles is driven by labour-substituting technologies such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing,” the report states. “Conversely, 3D printing and robotics are seen as strong drivers of employment growth in architecture and engineering.”

But according to Manpower, one of the world's largest jobs companies, the future of work is bright – at least in the short term.

The organisation’s Skills Revolution report surveyed 18,000 employers in 43 different countries across the world. It found 82 percent of employers expect to maintain or increase staff levels as a result of automation.

“New technologies can be expensive and require people with specialist skills, so employers are still hesitant to say hello automation, goodbye workers,” the report states. “Most employers expect automation and the adjustment to digitization will bring a net gain for employment.”

However, not everyone will be impacted equally and women are particularly vulnerable.

Women in the firing line

Roles in sales, business and financial operations as well as office work and administration are all under threat from automation – and these tend to have higher proportions of women. Conversely, iIndustries which expect jobs growth, including architecture, engineering, computer and mathematical roles, tend to have a lower participation of women. 

In its 2016 report The Industry Gender gap: Women and Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the World Economic Forum predicts women will face three million job losses and only half a million gains – more than five jobs lost for every job gained.

Mercer’s third When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive report – the largest survey of its kind, representing 647 organizations in 42 countries and covering 3.2 million employees – finds the fourth industrial revolution is likely to further interrupt progress toward gender equality.

Pat Milligan, Mercer’s Global Leader of When Women Thrive, says the report is a call to organiszations and leaders to think and act differently to advance women and drive their growth.

“The speed and magnitude of the coming changes mean that it is high time for actions that will actually make a difference,” Milligan says. “Organisations  urgently need to take steps to minimisze displacement and advance opportunities for women.”

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