In August, Japan hopes to send Kirobo, a 34-cm tall, 1kg humanoid robot, to the International Space Station, to assist a Japanese astronaut. Robots are getting cleverer, more dextrous and safer; interest has turned to them performing services, working alongside human beings, and maybe eventually acting in ‘swarms’. But aren’t robots also destroying jobs?
Management consultants McKinsey say they are. McKinsey argues that, by 2025, robots may take 15 to 25 per cent of developed-world tasks in occupations such as manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance and agriculture, and five to 15 per cent of developing-country tasks in manufacturing alone. It also forecasts a diffusion of robots in commercial services at about half that rate.
McKinsey expresses a growing consensus. In America, top Keynesian economist Paul Krugman declares ‘sympathy for the Luddites’, arguing that robots now hit educated workers of all descriptions. Krugman also believes that robots sway the distribution of national income further towards capital and away from labour. Others make similar points about automation in general.
Everywhere, the advancing capabilities and spread of IT are felt to increase inequality. McKinsey warns of ‘social and political resistance, particularly if robots are perceived as destroying more jobs than they create’, and favours extra education for those made redundant by robots. Krugman wants a state-welfare safety net for those whose jobs are robotised.
Is any of this a realistic account of events? For the penetration of world robots to meet its forecasts for 2025, McKinsey concedes that a lot of investment will be required: about $1 trillion to increase industrial robots from 10million to 25million, and a further $0.2-4 trillion to up commercial service robots to 2.5-2.8 million. That, McKinsey adds, would imply world robot sales growing by 25 to 30 per cent every year over the next 13 years – ‘significantly higher than the average growth rate over the past two decades, but lower than the growth rate in 2010 and 2011’.