Me human, you robot – Future of work: What to expect?

28 Sep 2017 17:00h - 18:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports from WTO Public Forum 2017]

This session addressed the growing realisation that jobs will be lost due to automation. Those likely to be impacted most by this development are millennials, which is why the speakers of the session were all from this generation. After a short introduction by moderator Luisa Scarcella, PhD candidate, University of Graz, the discussion started with a focus on the European Parliament’s European Civil Law Rules in Robotics, presented through video by Brando Benifei, Member, European Parliament.

Benifei explained that the European Parliament’s resolution on the topic is the result of a longer reflection process on the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on society, and addresses wide-ranging issues, such as liability, environmental impacts, ethical considerations, and technical standards. These are all delicate issues ‘that need to be acknowledged and tackled before it becomes too late’. As for the impact of AI on the labour market, Benifei identified the need to assess the potential impact and think constructively about possible solutions.

Lauréne Tran, Researcher, The Family, pointed out that concerns about job losses due to automation have been around for quite a long time. Yet, there will be future jobs in other fields, which are not able to be automated by AI, such as those based on human interaction and empathy. This may also shift the societal appreciation for such jobs and the welfare systems around them.

In a second video, Benifei talked about the future needs of the welfare system in further detail, and explained that the issue has turned out to be very complicated and divisive in the EU. It is clear that the digital revolution will have a major impact on the traditional welfare system, and while there is limited consensus on these issues, there is a risk of not being able to take action in time in response to fast-paced developments.

Michaela Georgina Lexer, PhD candidate, University of Graz, analysed one of the proposed solutions for a future welfare system: a universal basic income (UBI). She emphasised that the legal aspects of such a measure would still need to be considered in more depth. While legal frameworks differ from country to country, certain legal principles exist across systems, and they might not be immediately compatible with the idea of a UBI. For example, the lack of taking appropriate positive action (such as providing benefits for people who need special care) could violate the principle of equality. She pointed out several other legal complexities and gaps, providing food for thought on the need for a serious consideration of the legal consequences of such a system. Scarcella reflected on another potential solution: a robot tax. She pointed out that there are many legal complexities in this area as well, even when it comes to providing a proper legal definition of robotics or AI.

Joanne Tan, PhD candidate, Sciences-Po Paris, presented her research on the ways in which digital technology is complementary to workers’ skills and job tasks, and to what extent it replaces them. She mentioned that the middle class has been losing out on wages and jobs, compared to both lower- and higher-wage earners, where digital technology is much more complementary to the skill-sets used. However, she raised the question of whether, in the future, the cognitive skills used by white-collar workers would be substitutes for rather than complements to technology.

Finally, Maikki Sipinen, M. Sc., University of Helsinki, reflected on the future skills and knowledge that will be needed, and how the education system needs to be adapted to potential future labour market needs. As we know what separates us from machines and robots – critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and social and emotional skills – these skills need to be empowered. In fact, children at Finnish primary schools are already taught algorithmic thinking, and their emotional skills are enhanced through the use of special digital applications.

by Barbara Rosen Jacobson