She who has the most robots wins.
Image: Flickr/spencer cooper
It's a common belief that low-wage workers will be hit the hardest by advanced robots in the workplace. When we take a global perspective on this, the people that will be most affected by widespread automation won't be workers in North America, according to a new United Nations report—it'll be people in developing countries.
Automation stands to reduce opportunities for low-wage workers in North America, the report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development states. But the types of jobs most likely to be eliminated entirely are more prevalent in developing nations. That's because those same jobs, in sectors like farming and manufacturing, have already mostly dried up in wealthier nations as corporations have moved their operations abroad, in search of higher profits through lower wage costs.
The developing world stands to lose "about two thirds of all jobs," according to the report. That's a staggering figure, and well above most credible estimates for job losses due to automation in the West.
"The increased use of robots in developed countries risks eroding the traditional labour cost advantage of developing countries," the report states. "Adverse effects for developing countries may be significant."
While the UN report is talking about the effects of robots in the workplace, what's really at issue is the profit-seeking behaviour of corporations. And in a globalized economy, shifts in labour power aren't just felt in wealthy nations, but all over the world. In China, for example, factory owners have already used robots and automation as a tool to do away with rabble-rousing workers.
The countries with the most robots will likely see the greatest gains in productivity, the report notes—China is currently leading the pack in robot acquisition, the UN says—but there is an upside for countries without enough wealth to bring in enough robot workers to stay competitive… sort of.
Countries with a large pool of low-skill (read: low-wage) labour may excel in areas that robots aren't great at yet, like garment-making, the report states. In other words, the cost of developing and deploying robots may be higher than paying next-to-nothing to a bunch of humans with already-nimble human fingers.
"Disruptive technologies always bring a mix of benefits and risks," the report says. Indeed, market-directed thinking often holds that if companies automate some jobs away, the economy will demand higher-skill jobs to take their place and eventually equilibrium will be restored.
To that end, the report recommends education: teaching kids how to work with new technology so that they can step into the higher-skill occupations that haven't yet been automated.
As it is, though, the UN report paints a pretty bleak vision of the future: fewer jobs here, and way fewer jobs over there. But hey, at least some people will be making money.
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