Despite technological progress promising to solve many of Europe’s problems, people still worry about robots and automation costing jobs. But this anxiety is based on fear, not reason, warns Thilo Brodtmann.
Thilo Brodtmann is executive director of the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), which represents more than 3,200 mostly medium-sized companies in the capital goods industry.
Technological progress in industry can be the answer to challenges like global competition, climate change or an ageing society.
Despite this perspective, people look increasingly anxious towards our digital future. They cannot be blamed. “Robots to steal 15 million of your jobs”, exclaimed the Daily Mail for example. Automation is in danger of becoming the subject of a debate not based on reason, but on fear.
To be clear: Europe needs to discuss how to approach new technologies, and automation will affect our labour market. But like in previous industrial revolutions, digitisation comes with opportunities and risks that we have to keep in perspective.
Technological progress will create new jobs, make work more interesting and help employees to improve their productivity. To tap this potential, we must not base the debate – let alone political action – exclusively on worst-case scenarios.
Replace tasks, not jobs
In fact, recent studies on the effect of automation on labour came to contradicting conclusions. An Oxford Martin School study from 2013 warns that 43% of US jobs were at high risk from automation.
However, an analysis by the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) puts this figure at 9%. Interestingly, more optimistic experts suggest that professions do not get automated, but rather specific tasks. Since a worker usually executes a wider range of tasks, his or her job will not be fully replaced by a robot.
This is best explained by an example: take, for instance, a nurse. To keep it simple, let’s reduce the profession to two tasks: interacting with patients and dispensing food. The latter can probably be automated – a robot might even be less prone to the risk of mixing up diet plans.
However, the interaction with the patient will still need to be done by a human being. A nurse assisted by a robot will even be able to improve the work by having more time to care for patients.
In a broader context, it becomes clear how automation can be an opportunity for Europe. A worker who is assisted by a robot can concentrate on the tasks that require experience, judgement, intuition or creativity.
Very likely, this worker will become more productive, not only in terms of quantitative output, but especially in quality. And quality is in many cases what makes the high-wage region of Europe competitive on the global market.
Europe must act: with a sense of proportion
Still, technological progress will not leave the labour market unaffected. Jobs will be lost because of automation, new ones will be created due to new business models but first of all the outline of professions will develop.
To my understanding, it is the main task of politics to prepare people for this future and companies to implement modern technologies. Europe needs better education, schemes for lifelong learning, investments in research and infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the Legal Committee of the European Parliament adopted a report on robotics, including a debate on a robot tax, implications for the social welfare system and a general basic income.
Pondering the risks and opportunities of automation, I would find concrete action concerning this matter premature. Europe should be careful not to take steps that might hinder the development and implementation of automation technology through additional costs or bureaucracy.
But my general concern remains that it will be increasingly difficult to find a balanced approach if people (who are also employees and voters) grow scared of technological progress. Under these circumstances, the public debate will become lopsided – and Europe will end up fighting illusory risks and missing out on genuine opportunities.