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LEAD Innovation Blog

Read our latest articles on innovation management and innovation in a wide range of industries.

Date: 09-Aug-2019
Posted by: Angela HENGSBERGER

Do robots really take our work away or just do it for us?

The further development of AI and robots has been declared a state goal by the Chinese government. Initial successes, such as in autonomous driving, have already been achieved. As in the Middle Kingdom, all employees ask themselves the question: Will robots and AIs kill my job? Studies and experts disagree as to whether the new technologies destroy the work or create new ones and even more.

Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are regarded as panaceas - at least for the Chinese government: on the one hand, they make the economy more efficient and sustainable. On the other hand, both technologies help to maintain the authoritarian political system. As early as 2017, China's head of state and party Xi Jinping announced that he would make China an AI superpower.

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The Middle Kingdom has a significant starting advantage over the USA and especially over Europe: the protection of privacy is not very pronounced in China. Regulations such as the Basic Data Protection Regulation (DSGVO), which has been in force in the EU since May 2018, would be unthinkable there. Meanwhile, the government plans to equip all major locations in the country with facial recognition cameras by 2020. These will play a key role in the planned introduction of the social credit system in China in 2020. This system records citizens' behaviour and awards points for it. People with a poor ranking do not have access to certain services such as air travel, loans or even good schools for their children. According to a survey, the vast majority of the population supports the social credit system and the associated total surveillance.


Data are the fuel for artificial intelligence

Huge amounts of data are therefore available to business and politics. These are the fuel for the further development of artificial intelligence. In some fields, the Middle Kingdom is already considered a pioneer: "The Chinese will depend on the rest of the world to drive autonomously," the German economics professor Ferdinand Dudenhöffer told the German Press Agency in April 2018. He was right. In Beijing, the world's first autonomous Level 4 minibus makes its rounds. Background: The path to autonomous driving is divided into 5 stages: At level four, the system performs all driving tasks independently. China does not seem to be too far away from the robot car. Of course, vehicles are not the only use case of AI and robotics with which China attracts worldwide attention.


For example, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua uses two avatars to present news in different languages. The system developed by the Chinese search engine operator Sogou uses AI and Machine Learning to make the voice, gestures, facial expressions and lip movements appear as human as possible.


Studies: Robots destroy half of all jobs

The anxious question that worries not only the working people in China but all workers around the world is: Will my job soon be replaced by a robot? In 2013, the two Oxford scientists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborn published a 72-page theses paper on the subject: 47 percent of Americans would be at high risk of losing their jobs to a robot or algorithm. Although the methodology of the study is more than doubtful on closer inspection, the paper made the rounds. Since this study at the latest, the robot has advanced to become a demon that robs working people of their jobs and thus their income. This thesis nourished many other studies and forecasts. In 2018, for example, the German IT association Bitkom presented a no less frightening estimate: within five years, digitization would destroy 3.4 million jobs in Germany. This corresponds to slightly more than 10 percent. This finding is based on a survey of 500 companies across all industries.


Machines already do a lot of work and often fail in the process

If one considers which professions AI and robots already do today, then the Oxford study and the many other forecasts with similar results may seem quite plausible - at least theoretically. Both technologies can already be found in many surprising places:

  • In China, traffic surveillance detects crimes and sends the traffic ticket to the culprit's smartphone. Of course, the system is not perfect. The system wanted to immediately punish a driver who scratched his head for using a mobile phone while driving without permission.
  • In June 2019, Deutsche Bahn tested a robot head called "SEMMI" at Berlin Central Station. It is intended to offer travellers better customer service. However, he was not quite convinced during the presentation, as this video of the German Bild  proves.
  • In 2015, Hotel Henn-na was the first robotic hotel in the world to hit the headlines. There, machines dressed up as dinosaurs were supposed to support human employees. However, these caused more work than they saved. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported, for example, about a personal assistant who asked a guest several times in the middle of the night the question "Excuse me, I didn't understand that. Can you repeat the question? Apparently the robot interpreted the loud snoring sounds of the hotel guest as a question. The hotel management therefore fired more than half of the 243 robots.


Robots bring production companies back to high-wage countries

These and many other glitches show that in many places the technology may not be as mature as it should be for everyday use. The users and media often have completely wrong expectations in AI and Co. "Robots are absolutely overestimated in their ability", Michael Hofbaur, director of Joanneum Research Forschungsgesellschaft mbH in Graz, told the trade magazine Factory. He brings another aspect to the table: The use of robots makes it possible to keep or even locate manufacturing companies in Austria. After all, employing robots would cost roughly the same all over the world.


Machines could give people time for creative and demanding tasks

The fact that robots and AIs prove to be the big job killers is not yet a foregone conclusion. There are studies and experts who even believe that intelligent machines create more jobs than they destroy. In some areas, such as the care of the sick and the elderly, robots support human caregivers. Because the machines serve as playmates or perform simple or physically demanding tasks, nurses have more resources to take care of the patient. Robots and AIs are therefore also an opportunity for us humans to avoid tedious, monotonous and heavy work, to have more time for complex, creative and social activities.


Conclusion: Do robots really take our work away or just do it for us?

Technological progress in the past has always led to fear for existing jobs. This was mostly unfounded: Because innovations have created new occupations - society has never run out of work before. Artificial intelligence and robots, however, are technologies that strongly imitate humans in their thinking, doing and acting. Perhaps this is why the fear for the job is so great?

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Image Source Title picture: https://pixabay.com/de/photos/robonaut-maschinen-geschickten-600982/


Born and raised in Vienna. Since 2012 she has been in charge of Business Development at LEAD Innovation with the functions marketing, sales and communication.

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