Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, perhaps best known for making Apple products, hit the news this week after it announced it’s replacing a staggering 60,000 human employees with robots.
The company told the BBC that it’s automating a large chunk of manufacturing operations and is continually looking for ways to harness automation and manpower across all its departments.
Innovating, not replacing
In a statement, Foxconn explained that it’s using robotic technology as a way to innovate manufacturing, rather than simply replacing humans. In fact, it said it wants to help its employees focus on more important tasks and make their jobs easier.
“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees and, through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control,” the statement read.
One of the firm’s factories has already reduced the amount of employees from 110,000 to 50,000 as a result of implementing robots for manufacturing purposes, a government official told the South China Morning Post.
Vision of the future
While 60,000 may seem minor in comparison to the firm’s overall 1.2 million employees, the number still demonstrates the prospect of robots replacing humans in the near future – posing the risk of mass unemployment.
Robotic solutions are widely seen as a major threat to the human workforce. According to a report from Deloitte, automation could replace up to 11 million jobs in the UK by 2036. Roles in industries like wholesale and retail would be most affected, while care and social work jobs have the lowest likelihood of being replaced by robots.
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Robots bring benefits too
Dean Jenkins, founder of the Codez Academy, says that while robots replacing humans is a scary prospect for most, they could bring many other job opportunities. He explains that there are still people who build, programme and maintain robotics.
He said: “It’s a very scary and tetchy subject for a lot of people because the idea of losing jobs. But you have to consider that for every one job lost to a robot, there will be two or three potential new jobs.
“You have to think about who builds these robots, who programmes these robots, who maintains the robots, who quality checks the robots. Robots are incredibly complex machines and it takes a lot of upkeep that needs to be done by humans.
“Take into consideration GE for example, if you programme a robot to do maintenance on aircraft engines, you remove the potential for human error, so in that sense it could be a lot safer.
“And as I said, you would still need humans to keep these robots going, so the potential job loss balances out. I think my only fear of it all is if those robots could get hacked, that could cause a huge problem, which you wouldn’t get with a human.”
No way to accurately predict effects
Andrew Akesson, head of digital at digital agency Venn Digital, believes there isn’t an accurate way of predicting if robots replacing humans is good or bad. Like Dean, he says there’ll be positives as well as negatives.
“There is no way of predicting of whether robots replacing the human workforce is good or bad. Google appear to be the current leaders of the progression of the self-driving car, but what happens if that is ever released? Taxi/bus drivers would be out of a job, haulage drivers would be out of a job and unemployment would be rife,” he said.
“On the other hand, the consumer wins as fares will be reduced due to the fact they won’t be paying staffing costs for manned vehicles. I expect Uber will be the first to utilise the self-driving car, as it’ll further reduce costs, which’ll be passed onto the consumer and put their a lot of their localised competition out of business.”
Scott Woodley, co-founder of tech firm Tutora, also commented on the topic. He said: “Like it or not, robots will invade the workplace – it’s inevitable. In fact, they’re already here.
“At Tutora, we code to make us more efficient, sending canned messages and automated texts. Okay, it’s not the sexy robotics of our tiny Honda friend, but it’s an example of how automation is replacing the manual tasks undertaken by lower skilled workers.
And make no mistakes, it is lower skilled, lower paid workers who will suffer most immediately, as checkout workers have already experienced.
“Professionals can remove their smug smile, however, as more traditional sectors are also in danger. As Richard and Daniel Susskind point out in their fabulous book, The Future of the Professions, big data will allow us all to diagnose our own illnesses, teach ourselves and write legal contracts.
“Humanoids will quickly follow, but if we wait until then to discuss the role of robots, it will be too late.”
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