Globalisation, robotics, and the future of work

20 Feb 2019

Event report

The event, organised by the Graduate Institute, was the first briefing of the IHEID Lunch Briefing sessions in 2019. It was moderated by Ms Jacqueline Côté (Director of Public Relations at the Graduate Institute) who introduced the speaker.

Mr Richard Baldwin (Economist, Professor at the Graduate Institute) explained that his research on globalisation has led him to a few realisations included in his latest book,The Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work. He first identified that the most recent phenomenon in globalisation does not concern the manufacturing sector but rather the service industry. Developments in artificial intelligence (AI) affect the service industry much more than they disrupt the manufacturing sector. The book also discusses whether the latest developments in AI and other emerging technologies are concerned with globalisation or automation. He coined the term ‘globotics’ which he uses to describe globalisation and robotics. However, globalisation in this context focuses more on telemigration and remote intelligence (RI) while robotics refers to white collar robots and AI.

Baldwin pointed to Moore’s law according to which growth rates of technological development double every two years. He mentioned having thought about the question as to why digital disruption was such a predictable phenomenon that is still unexpected. One of the reasons, according to Baldwin, is that people think about technological disruption at a pace that they have previously witnessed, without taking into account that the current evolution is happening exponentially. He also noted that machine learning is a big contributor to the rapid development given that previously, programmers had to write code for every piece of software they developed. This was very time consuming. Today, machine learning can detect and adopt to patterns much more easily and much faster.

Highlighting the importance of thinking about tasks that would be replaced rather than occupations that would disappear, Baldwin drew parallels with the introduction of tractors in farming which alleviated and changed the way farming was done, but  did not lead demise of farming as an occupation. Instead, it required farmers to adapt to the change. The adoption of globotics will happen gradually. He compared it to how smartphones became part of our daily lives through a series of seemingly unrelated decisions.

Regarding the loss of jobs in the future, Baldwin noted that people should not focus on what AI and other technologies will eventually be able to do. Instead, people should think about what technology will not be able to do and focus on that. For example, deliberations about ethics, and elements that require emotional intelligence, empathy, and creativity. However, Baldwin also underlined the importance of governments helping workers adjust to these changes considering that there is a risk of upheaval as a reply to disruptions in the job market. Along those lines, he also mentioned possible challenges for taxation and labour standards, particularly in relation to remote intelligence and telemigration. States will need to find ways to raise taxes from people who do not physically live in a country but provide their services there.