Robots are creepy. Thoughts of them much more frequently harken to the killer robots of the Terminator flicks than the friendly droids C-3P0 and R2-D2 of Star Wars. Or is that just me? For all the irrational fear of sinister robots, the concern that is valid is the ability of robots to kill jobs. There is no denying they have that potential, and to some extent are already doing their damage to employment levels in factory towns and rust belts around the world.
But their impact does not need to be so destructive, if only we could confront their implications head-on. Opportunistic politicians on various ends of the political spectrum are feeding a mass delusion that the evils of globalisation and free trade are taking jobs away from blue-collar workers. Such ideas, combined with anxiety over immigration, have brought populists to power and sparked recent threats of damaging trade wars. But this is entirely the wrong battle to fight.
It's considerably less sexy to talk about skills – even less sexy to do the hard work of designing programmes that gear workers up for the more tech-driven jobs of the future – which is why too few politicians do so. Automation will surely change the way things are produced and how we work. That’s inevitable and it is a waste of time to wish it were not the case. The way to battle against the ill effects of automation is to do it armed with diplomas and training manuals.
Automation still requires employees; people need to design, build, operate or even work alongside the robotised technologies. But workforces with the skills to do these new functions need to be created, fostered and melded from previous iterations. It’s all possible; it just isn’t as fun as tearing up trade deals or ranting about job-killer robots.
Far too few communities were out in front of Industry 4.0 or the new technological trends of recent years, and very few put in place the right programmes to get their workforces skilled to match the evolving demands of an increasingly automated business world. Far too few are ahead of the curve now. And that is the thing that should make us more nervous than the idea of robots themselves.
Courtney Fingar is editor-in-chief of fDi Magazine. Email: email@example.com