Digitization and robotization of the work of the future

The article reviews the forecasts on the emergence of an inevitable future massive technological unemployment due to the diffusion of artificial intelligence (AI) and Industry 4.0. It is argued, based on specific business experiences, that they are not implying the elimination (of the majority) of human employment, making visible the dependencies of the AI ​​itself and its algorithms with respect to “human computing” and its reliability to successfully implement the new technologies. Finally, a proposal is presented for an empirical evaluation of the “quality” of the new working and employment conditions implemented by digitization and robotization today.

Working alongside robots could contribute to burnout and fears over losing  your job, new study finds | Euronews


In the last decade, parallel to the beginning of the negative effects of the Great Financial and Productive Recession, with its worldwide destruction of jobs, the precariousness of citizen existence in the world economy (business closures, globalized migrations, increased socioeconomic inequality, poor workers …), a “fear of automation” of work (recurring throughout contemporary history) spread again, this time as a consequence of the development and business implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and its consequent digitizationof the productive processes. Automation that would imply that in a process of one or two decades (between 2020 and 2030) this artificial intelligence would end millions of jobs and the “human intelligence” and “human labor” that sustained them. This techno-pessimistic argument brought back the specter of “massive technological unemployment” (similar to that which arose during the second half of the 1970s, at the very beginning of stagflation), the fear of machines, robots and AI as job destroyers 1 , but in a dramatic context of growing unemployment due to the simultaneous international recession in the different world economic blocks.

Precisely, the “economic and social depression” caused by the financial crisis made (and makes) easier the uncritical acceptance and dissemination that the future of human work and its productive business employment would imply: 1) that up to half of jobs could disappear as a result of automation and AI, with the now mythical omen: “According to our estimate, 47 percent of total employment in the United States is in the high-risk [automation] category, which which means that the associated occupations are potentially automatable over an unspecified number of years, probably a decade or two .(Frey and Osborne: 2013: 38); 2) that the new digital technologies are giving rise to a Fourth Industrial Revolution with disruptive effects on society and on human work activities; 3) that AI will eventually perform not only routine productive tasks, but also skilled creative activities; 4) that training in digital skills will be the only collective and individual strategy to be able to “adapt” to the “robotic apocalypse” and be able to work with (and for) the new digital machines; 5) that the Fourth Industrial Revolution of AI would force (in a deterministic way) to transform labor markets, public welfare policies and educational systems. All this, in an accelerated way, in less than a couple of decades.

These arguments have been repeated, almost without a solution of continuity, in the mass media and, as the results of various opinion polls and barometers show, have been taken up by broad social groups, which fear the impacts of the new wave of automation. Nearly half of the people interviewed in Spain consider that the processes of robotization and implementation of AI imply many risks (Lobera and Torres-Albero, 2019), while 66 percent fear that they will replace a multitude of jobs, that In addition, they will not be recovered with other jobs (Cotec, 2020). At the European level, “although more than six interviewees have a positive view of robots and AI, an even higher proportion (72 percent) agree that they ‘steal’ people’s jobs” (European Commission, 2017). This figure rises to 90 percent in the case of those interviewed in Spain3. However, around a decade after the start of this debate, we can already synthesize some arguments that critically question or limit this prognosis of the end of human work and the immediately disruptive nature of Industry 4.0 4 technologies (AI, internet industry of things, advanced robotics, additive manufacturing through 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous transportation, etc.): “Technological change is simultaneously replacing current jobs and creating new jobs. It is not totally eliminating work”.

1.2 Lower rate of diffusion and investment in advanced digital technologies than expected

Until the accelerated globalization of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after a couple of decades of intense digital innovation, the levels of investment in technological and information capital continue to be proportionally below the levels of previous decades: “The data processing equipment information [ICT] grew at a rate of 8 percent per year in the period 2002-2007 [in the United States], almost half the rate of 15.6 percent in the period 1995-2002, and grew even more slowly (4, 8 percent annually) after 2007. If technology were rapidly transforming our workplaces, we would expect the exact opposite, a sharp increase in the use of equipment and softwarein the production of goods and services. This is what happened in the late 1990s, but it is not happening now” (Mishel and Shierjolz, 2017). It is true that, qualitatively, these digital investment figures have had a very intense effect on the modification of production processes, on their organization and on the mutation of the skills and/or qualifications of the human factor whose jobs they modify, but, at the same time, they indicate the business and organizational boundaries that are slowing the spread of the supposedly disruptive technologies of Industry 4.0.

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