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Are robots about to take jobs from the poor?

Updated Monday 20th March 2017

A new generation of robots could be expanding their career options - and that could be catastrophic news for the poorest in the world, says Aisling Irwin.

MIT's Baxter, a robot designed to manipulate objects Creative commons image Icon Steve Jurvetson under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license Baxter, a robot designed at MIT to mimic human dexterity with small objects

On a tour of the vast Beximco garment factory in Bangladesh in 2014, I saw the upside of outsourced manufacturing: a bright and organised shopfloor; and endless rows of women churning out fashion for major brands such as Zara and Calvin Klein – as well as income for their families.

Bangladesh’s garment industry has its flaws, some of them deep - the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse is just one tragic reminder. But, in a city of mud-drenched poverty, the absence of a garment industry would make things worse.
So I was worried to hear a delegate at the Digital Development Summit, held in London last week (March 13), predict that robots will replace seamstresses within 15 years.

Perhaps it was more an off-the-cuff comment than studied prediction, but by all accounts, automation is coming.

While the West frets about drivers losing their jobs to automated cars, the conveners of this Summit - the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the World Wide Web Foundation and the UK innovation foundation Nesta - fret about the effects of automation on the developing world.

They fear that poor countries will find an abrupt closure of the traditional path to prosperity: export-led manufacturing.

This “premature deindustrialisation”, as the Summit organisers called it, threatens 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia and over half of jobs in many South East Asian countries, according to several studies published last year
The threat extends to the millions involved in “business process outsourcing” – service-industry activity such as data transcription or IT support.

“So many international development actors are largely unprepared for the changes underfoot,” Melissa Leach, director of IDS, told the meeting.

“The stakes in this, I must emphasise, couldn’t be higher.” Mass unemployment is one; loss of revenue for governments is another; and then there's the disproportionate effect on women workers. 

Amongst the worried development crowd was a sprinkling of more optimistic technologists and government representatives. They predicted new jobs we can’t yet conceive of, and robot-proof job growth in areas such as the service sector.

Automation could bring a trillion dollars of growth a year globally, according to the UN Industrial Development Organisation.

But the game-changing question is: who benefits if the growth is jobless?

Will we need an automation tax to tap this new wealth and siphon it to the unemployed, perhaps in the form of a universal basic income?

Will we need to rethink how economies work, with “nothing less than a global New Deal for a digital world,” as called for by Ben Ramalingam of IDS?

Certainly the day was filled with calls for visionary thinking: “This is an opportunity to reimagine how economies are structured and we should not lose out on that opportunity,” said Anne Jellema, CEO of the Web Foundation.

Beximco has flourished partly because its leaders had the vision to revolutionise the garment production chain so it could respond to rapidly shifting fashion tastes. How manufacturers like this one will deal with the next wave of innovation —and how those hundreds of brightly dressed seamstresses will make a living – remains to be seen. 

This article originally appeared on SciDevNet under a CC-BY licence


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