Et menneske og en robot venter på jobbintervju.
There is plenty of work to do, as long as there is money to pay people, says the researcher.

How working life could change if robots take over more and more jobs

Industrial robots could create greater changes than humanoid robots, researcher says.

Artificial intelligence and robots could take over more and more tasks in the future.

Technology may play a greater role in manual labour, office work, the healthcare sector, and possibly transportation.

What happens if there are no longer enough jobs for everyone? Researchers working with questions of ethics and technology share their thoughts.

Full automation in warehouses

Henrik Skaug Sætra believes robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to changes in the labour market.

However, there is a difference between talking about human-like robots, artificial intelligence, or industrial robots, he says. 

Sætra is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo.

“Conventional industrial robots already replace many workers by enabling new types of warehouses with fully automated solutions,” he says. 

For example, Norwegian company AutoStore has developed a robotic system for picking goods in warehouses, where most processes are automated. Amazon also operates fully automated warehouses and storage facilities, Sætra points out.

“The more of these automated warehouses we have, the fewer jobs there will be in this sector,” he says. 

Et automatisert lager
Norwegian e-commerce company Komplett Group AS is one of the companies that uses a system from AutoStore.

Expensive and impractical?

Some companies are also trying to develop humanoid robots capable of performing manual labour.

Sætra is more sceptical about their potential to replace human workers.

“I think that more mundane robotics has a far greater potential to disrupt the labour market than humanoid robots," he says. 

Sætra believes human-like robots are expensive and impractical for tasks like fetching and transporting items.

But they do have one big advantage: They can navigate environments designed for humans.

“Most of the working landscapes we’ve created are designed for people with two arms, legs, and a human physique. Humanoid robots are therefore interesting for tasks that don’t involve altering the environment,” he says. 

Nonetheless, we are far from having mass-produced, affordable human-like robots capable of replacing people, Sætra emphasises.

Additionally, humans can adapt to new tasks much faster than a robot.

En robot løfter en boks fra et samlebånd.
The Digit robot from Agility Robotics is designed to perform tasks in warehouses or production facilities.

Home robots are a possible future

Humanoid robots could eventually become available for ordinary people to purchase for their home.

“I don't think it'll disrupt the labour market, as we don't have many domestic servants in Norwegian homes today," says Sætra.

“The technology will probably also be very expensive. It'll be quite some time before average people can afford a personal home assistant, a robot that can cook or take care of children."

These types of applications are interesting, and it's not unrealistic to think we might achieve this in the not-too-distant future, Sætra adds.

“If you have a lot of money and are willing to tolerate that these robots are far from perfect, then I think it's a fun and exciting prospect,” he says.  

Google and DeepMind have created the robot Aloha. It does not look like a human but is trained to perform tasks at home. Videos show the robot cooking, cleaning, and cleaning.

Artificial intelligence threatens other types of jobs

Services based on artificial intelligence can be accessed on a PC.

Opinions are divided on how big an impact this will have on the labour market, according to Sætra.

“A lot of people think the amount of hype around AI is extreme and is going to die down soon. Others are really optimistic and think that AI will make people much more productive and take over the jobs of some people,” he says.

One of the tasks AI can perform is answer customer questions.

“We don’t yet have many concrete examples of companies that have managed to replace human workers with AI in a solid and reliable way,” says Sætra.

However, he still believes that artificial intelligence has the potential to disrupt and change things in the labour market.

Warehouse workers aren’t the ones who will disappear.

“Here, we’re talking about consultants at large consulting firms being outcompeted,” says Sætra.

The compilation and analysis of large amounts of information will increasingly be automated.

Thinks desk jobs will disappear before craftsmanship

Atle Ottesen Søvik is on the same page. He is a professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

It is not necessarily the jobs of people with less education that are most at risk in the future labour market, where artificial intelligence will be able to write, make films, mark tests, and other things.

Søvik teaches ethics and technology with a focus on philosophy of religion.

He believes it is true that robots can replace manual labour that is simple, repetitive, and requires little human contact.

“But I think a lot of the jobs requiring craftsmanship will last much longer than some desk jobs,” he says.

When it comes to humanoid robots, Søvik says that physical tasks are still difficult for them.

“In the last ten years, artificial intelligence has progressed at breakneck speed on theoretical tasks,” he says.

Physical tasks are progressing more slowly. The robots are getting a little better at climbing stairs or going a little faster.

We make a lot of adjustments so that the robots we have can do their job. We adapt the garden or living room for the lawnmower and vacuum cleaner robots, for example.

Still a lot that we want people to do

When jobs have disappeared in the past, many new ones have appeared.

Can we get to a point where robotics and artificial intelligence take over so many tasks that there is no longer enough work for everyone?

“It’s always been the case that as technology has evolved, people have taken on new jobs. But what if robots take all the jobs? There are a lot of reasons to work beyond getting a salary, like self-realisation, community, contributing, and getting recognition,” says Søvik.

Whether everyone will be able to continue to work like before becomes an economic question. Søvik believes that as long as there is the money to pay for it, there will be a lot of jobs that we will still want people to do.

“Maybe AI can create nice songs, but we still prefer when a human being sings about heartbreak. Robots may be able to cook good food, but there can still be something special about a human having made it,” he says. 

In education, law, and police work, there’s a lot that we think is important for people to do, says Søvik.

“I think there is enormous potential for a lot more compassionate care – the police could work more preventively, teachers could help individual students, and social workers could follow up with individuals more closely. There are tons of jobs out there. The question is whether we can find a way financially to pay everyone,” he says.

En liten robot med hjul med påskriften 'Uber Eats'.
A robot that can deliver food was tested in Japan in March.

Political governance required

If it turns out that robots can eventually do everything, people might be able to receive a universal basic income, says Søvik.

The robots will be able to increase task efficiency and make it possible for the state to create tax schemes that allow everyone to benefit in the form of increased welfare. 

“I feel positive about the potential. But political governance will be needed due to so much rapid change. Trade unions will become important,” he says.

Jobs that only involve efficiency, like handling goods and some administrative tasks, might disappear.

“But there’ll still be plenty of things that we enjoy doing and that we want people to do,” says Søvik.

Could increase inequality

A possible danger is that more robots in the labour market could lead to greater inequality, says Henrik Skaug Sætra.

“If you have capital, you can just buy what you need to produce the goods you intend to sell. Then you’re not dependent on other people who require a salary. The available capital will be less evenly distributed,” he says.

Considering a universal basic income or taxing robots might be a solution, according to Sætra.

Marija Slavkovik raises the same issue. She heads of the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen and researches artificial intelligence and ethics.

The fear that humans will be replaced by technology is something that often comes up, she says.

“The reality is that automation improves human tasks rather than totally replacing them. Ideally, this leads to a better experience and added value for everyone,” she says.

“The pessimistic scenario envisions people being inadequately replaced by machines that do a worse job and provide a worse experience.”

Since production capacity increases while the need for labour decreases, this could lead to greater inequality.

“The money earned from the increased production capacity would be kept by business owners, or parts of the money could be redistributed in society,” she says.

More leisure time

There can certainly be positive aspects to artificial intelligence and robotics taking over more work tasks, Henrik Skaug Sætra believes.

“If we achieve redistribution, we will all be able to benefit from the increased efficiency and productivity,” he says.

Robots can do the boring, dirty, and dangerous jobs.

“Then people can live good lives without working as much. Clearly, this could be good for people,” he says.

Having a job is important in several ways, says Sætra. He does not think people will stop working, but that they will be able to work a little less.


Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

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