Why are we scared of robots – not computers – taking our jobs?

A researcher who’s been delving into perceptions of the future workplace asks why we think of robots not computers when we wonder who will take over the world.

Dr Andreas Cebulla, an Associate Professor in the Future of Work at Flinders University, says when computers first began many people were afraid they’d take jobs, and that’s now how people are thinking about the latest robot revolution.

But Cebulla told a Cosmos Science City forum about ‘Jobs of the Future’ that as a society we’ve decided what jobs are worthwhile, and which ones are low value – despite some of those ‘low value’ jobs being the hardest for technology to take over.

While regular fodder for science fiction TV shows and movies, what we consider ‘scary’ changes over time.

While nuclear war once pervaded the public consciousness, now we are more likely to consider climate change or AI robots the bringer of humanity’ doom.

“Computers were always seen as something that you use. But the robot was always there to do something for you,” he told Cosmos.

“Robots were put in place to take on the task of a human. And the next generation of robots will be the ones that are telling you what to do.”

But Cebulla notes that we have changed the way we perceive computers over time.

“In the 1990s when consumer versions arrived, when everyone could get access to them and businesses were beginning to use them, there were similar concerns then there are with robots today,” he said.

“Computers were these massive things in the past and there were only a few of them around. Then everyone ended up having them.

“If something similar were to happen with robots – if we all ended up having them in our home, would we be less worried about them taking our jobs as well?”

To assume the worst, when robots, AI or computers do take over our jobs, what do we do?

Well, according to Cebulla, first we need to approach this in a collaborative way.

He says consultation is the answer because technology is never really neutral.  “It’s up to the individual to decide what they want to do with the technology,” because technology like robots can be used in multiple ways.

“So if you’re running a business and you want to know whether the technology is good […] for the workers, the only way to find out is to consult.

Cebulla wants to change the way people are stereotyped around work – words like low skilled, routine, manual labour, are all very misleading.

“One of the most impressive jobs is the barista. It’s such an art to do this job properly and yet it’s totally underrated,” he said.

“Or think of the Uber driver. [Scientists] can’t get autonomous vehicles to drive without crashing or blocking the road. Which demonstrates how complex the task of driving a car actually is.

“So, these people are doing a very complicated job. usually very well. We just don’t like to pay them.”

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