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The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 59: December 21, 2016


Too Many Robots? Too Few Humans!
Quote of the Week:


The United Nations forecasts that the global population will rise from 7.3 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050, a big number that often prompts warnings about overpopulation.... 

Before long, though, we’re more likely to treasure robots than to revile them. They may be the one thing that can protect the global economy from the dangers that lie ahead.

An increase of 2.5 billion people may sound catastrophic. But what matters for economic growth is not the number of people but the rate of population growth. Since its peak in the 1960s, that rate has slumped by almost half to just 1 percent, and the U.N. forecast assumes that this slowdown will continue. Women are having fewer children, so fewer people are entering the working ages between 15 and 64, and labor-force growth is poised to decline from Chile to China. At the same time, owing to rapid advances in health care and medicine, people are living longer, and most of the coming global population increase will be among the retirement crowd. These trends are toxic for economic growth, and boosting the number of robots may be the easiest answer for many countries.”


Ruchir Sharma, “Robots won't kill the workforce. They'll save the global economy.


 
Demographics = Destiny  
 

While there is contention about the origin of the phrase, “demographics is destiny,” the gist of this issue's Quote of the Week presents no such ambiguity: the median age of people in the world is rising. In 1950, it was 23. In 2050 it will be 37. Improved medical care, changing social conventions, and readily available contraception are the greatest contributors. 

As I once heard a young Austrian designer say when she learned of a leader's decision to grant holiday leave to an entire design studio: “But, who vill do zee vork?”  

Who vill do zee vork, indeed?

The answer, increasingly, will be: robots.

Now, that might seem counterintuitive at a time when [a majority of electoral-college-representatives-of] Americans have just voted for a candidate who promised to return millions of jobs to the US from overseas. The promise is based on the [erroneous] claim that immigration is a major contributor to American unemployment.

In fact, automation, writ large, is both the problem, and the solution.

As the Quote of the Week article puts it:
Before long, though, we’re more likely to treasure robots than to revile them. They may be the one thing that can protect the global economy from the dangers that lie ahead.”

Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman hit the proverbial nail squarely when asked if he was concerned about the consequences of millions of robots being introduced into the Chinese workforce: “You just don't get it. In China, the robots are going to come just in time.

The assumptions behind much of the robofear are that machines will rapidly  replace workers in the 47% of US jobs judged to be vulnerable to automation, ignoring the more recent words of Carl Frey, one of that study's authors: Although we cannot exclude the possibility that technology may reduce the overall demand for jobs in the future, this is seemingly not an immediate concern.”  Frey's co-author, Michael Osborne, was even clearer: “I think a lot of the risk to professions has been overhyped.” 

OK, so, what does it matter if people overestimate/overhype the impact on jobs of immigrants and/or robots?

Hostility.

While it might be easy to see why attributing job loss to immigrants might lead to serious unintended social consequences, what's the harm in villainizing robots? HitchBOT-like incidents aside, strong negative attitudes and emotional responses toward robots are likely to make individuals less open to the vast opportunities to collaborate with machines in ways that enhance human productivity, quality of life, and overall wellbeing; less likely to embrace robots in caregiving roles for themselves or their loved ones. In fact, the US may find itself lagging behind other nations, like Japan, that are culturally better prepared to integrate robots into their workforce. That country in particular is responding to demographic/technological trends by accelerating robot introduction into a wide array of workplaces.

These conditions pose big challenges for employers, workers, and government. Primary among them is the task of identifying, selecting, and training people who are not just comfortable working alongside robots but who can both use these new tools to perform the tasks machines are best suited for and take up those high-value activities that people are uniquely equipped to handle: “simple” physical tasks (e.g., barbering, plumbing, carpentry), establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, social perceptiveness, creative problem solving. 

As our population ages we need to help one another overcome simplistic assessments of our new landscape and see the bigger picture: fewer peak employment aged people means greater reliance on our technological tools, including robots, to get work done. And a greater need for people to develop their RoboPsych capabilities. 

In this case, demographics is, indeed, destiny.  

 

Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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