Robotization and automation in the media 2014-2017

Photo: Chris Cox, under licence:

According to some we are now witnessing a third industrial revolution that will fundamentally change how and how much people will work. In part two of the report-series on robotization and automation of work, Barbara Czarniawska and Bernward Joerges turn their attention toward the media, to find out how hopes and fears related to robotization are expressed in newspaper articles. Here you can read an excerpt from the report.

Download the full report here:

Part one of the series:

Like robots themselves, the fears (and hopes) related to their entrance in workplaces started long before 2014. In 1921, The New York Times (NYT) published a book review with the title “Will machines devour man?” and a picture of a person being fed into a sausage grinder. On 26 February 1928 NYT published an article “March of the machine makes idle hands. Prevalence of unemployment with greatly increased industrial output points to the influence of labor-saving devices as an underlying cause.”

When Albert Einstein gave a speech in Berlin in August 1930 at the opening of the Seventh German Radio and Audio Show, he “laid the world ills to machine”. John Maynard Keynes shared his opinion, saying in the same year that “We are being afflicted with a new disease, ‘technological unemployment.’”

The fear that machines will deprive people of their work and income is quite common even today. In our analysis of 175 newspapers from 2014-2017 we found 32 instances voicing this fear.

Deprive people of jobs

This is, of course, the most typical negative message. It can take a shape of a general dystopic prediction, more detailed predictions, and the list of jobs most threatened.

In the first subcategory, “Be afraid!” is the message: the march of the machines is eating into our jobs, pay rises and children’s prospects (1). The transition is fast, and therefore shocking. The “recovery, reemployment, reskilling, retraining” do not happen fast enough, according to McAfee (2). And it needs to be remembered, that “work is not just a means for distributing purchasing power. It is also among the most important sources of identity and purpose in individuals’ lives” (3). Carl Benedikt Frey, a Swedish researcher working at Oxford, is quite sure that “AI will butcher the job market” (though Sweden may prove somewhat more resilient, 4). And even before it happens, both threat and reality “are having adverse effects on physical health and mental wellbeing across a range of occupations”. The transition will be “dramatic and painful” (5). Among other events, Brexit will trigger a “robot revolution” (6).

The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford asked 352 experts, and they were convinced that all jobs will be automated in 120 years.

More specifically, robots could replace 80 percent of jobs – low skill, low wage, but also middle skill, middle wage in USA (7). Moshe Verdi from Rice University predicted that there will be 50 percent unemployment if politicians do nothing (8). In China, FoxConn, the world’s tenth largest employer has already replaced 60,000 workers with robots (9). Amazon supermarkets operate with 3 humans only (a news denied by Amazon, 10). The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford asked 352 experts, and they were convinced that all jobs will be automated in 120 years (11). As for now, Forrester Market Research predicted that by 2021, six percent of all jobs in the USA will be automated, especially transportation, logistics, customer service and consumer services: call centers, taxi drivers and truckers (12).

Great many voices are concerned with the future of specific occupations and professions. There is a pessimistic reading of polarization: jobs in the middle will vanish, the top and low jobs will grow (13). Not only middle jobs, but also middle class will vanish (14). Polarization will concern not only people, but also countries. It should be obvious that “it is better to own a robot than to work with a robot”, said the UBS economist Lutfey Siddiqui (15).

As to specific occupations, cooks are among those who should fear for robots (16, 17), as robots already make pizzas (27). Call centers’ personnel will vanish (18, 19), but so will lawyers (16, 17, 22, 20, 21). Traders and brokers will not be needed (23, 21), but this may create a favorable position for those who can afford a robot (24). Jeffrey Sachs and other researchers predicted that even programming will suffer from stagnation as a consequence of an economic boom (“The robots are coming for your paycheck”, 25). Doctors and nurses will be replaced (16, 17, 22, 20). Scientists and university lecturers will share their fate (22, 20); in general, the definitions of “creative” and “routine” jobs will have to change (21). Add to this the fact that the new generation of bosses is very positive towards automation (26), and then it is easy to believe Martin Ford who said in his The Rise of Robots, “no job is safe”.

Journalists will end up like Chaplin in Modern Times unless they mobilize their last defenses: wit and surrealism.

Special attention has been paid to journalism (17, 28, 29, 30). Narrative Science (28, 30) has been joined by Wordsmith, which can produce number-based news about finance, sport and weather (30). Journalists will end up like Chaplin in Modern Times (29) unless they mobilize their last defenses: wit and surrealism (31). On the other hand, entertainers will be replaced by robots, too (22).

What to do? The US commentators think that one should remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew” (7). Still, it could be “a difficult transition rather than a sharp break with the history”, according to James Bessen, an economist at the Boston University School of Law. People are afraid of self-driving cars like they were afraid of cars replacing horses. But “companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed” (32).

Yet, dramatic as it sounds, job deprivation is not the worst things robots can do to people.

Read the full report here:

Part one of the series:

Barbara Czarniawska is Senior Professor of Management at Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg.

Bernward Joerges is Professor of Sociology (emeritus) at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.

Sources used

  1. Kelly, Gavin, “The robots are coming. Will they bring wealth or divided society?” The Guardian, 4 January.
  2., accessed 14 March 2014.
  3. Avent, Ryan, “A world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell”, The Guardian, 19 September.
  4.–, 1 December.
  5. Digital transformation will be dramatic and painful”, The Financial Times, 26 October.
  6. millions-of_jobs_at_risk_new_report_warns/?ref=ebln, 29 December.
  8. Would you bet against sex robots? AI ‘could leave half of world unemployed’”,The Guardian, 13 February.
  9., 18 January.
  10., 6 February.
  11., 26 July.
  12. Robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021, report says”, The Guardian, 14 September.
  13. “Automatisering en utmaning om fler jobb ska räddas”, Dagens Nyheter, 17 April.
  14. “Världen tar stormsteg mot tänkande maskiner”, Dagens Nyheter, 11 December.
  16. Boeing, Nils “New jobs for robots.” Die Zeit, 28 February.
  17. Belfiore, Michael, “When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here’s how to fight back.” The Guardian, 22 March.
  18. „Sztuczna inteligencja. Miliard pracowników powinno przygotować się na wstrząs@, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2 August.
  19. “Robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021, report says”, The Guardian, 14 September.
  20. Drutman, Lee and Mounk, Yascha, “When the robots rise”, The National Interest, 4 July.
  21. Matthews, David, “The robots are coming for the professionals”, Times Higher Education, 28 July.
  22. Hern, Alex and Milmo, Dan, “Thinking machines: the skilled jobs that could be taken over by robots”, The Guardian, 12 November.
  23. Bursell,Jacob/Thomas Peterffy, “Skapade världens första automatiska börsrobot”, Svenska Dagbladet, 3 April.
  24. “Robothandlarna har tagit över Wall Street”, Svenska Dagbladet, 22 April.
  25. Sparshott, Jeffrey, “The robots are coming for your paycheck”, The Wall Street Journal, 17 February.
  26. “Robotar tar över mer av vårt arbete”, Svenska Dagbladet, 5 April.
  27. “Made with love – by a robot”, The Washington Post, 12 November.
  28. “Robotarna tar över journalistiken”, Dagens Nyheter, 25 April.
  29. Baurmann, Jana Gioia, “Willkommen, Kollege!”, Die Zeit, 25 June.
  30. Adams, Tim, “And the Pulitzer goes to… a computer”, The Guardian, 28 June.
  31., 10 May.
  32. “Will smarter machines cause mass unemployment?”, The Economist, 25 June.

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