GENEVA — Robots can already build walls and cars, but soon they will also drive our trucks and perform our bookkeeping and legal affairs. Some will even be journalists. 

This may sound like science fiction, but it is very real, and it begs a fundamental question: What will become of people? Will they have new jobs, or be allowed to enjoy a permanent vacation, or face a new scary form of insecurity?

Technological progress shook the economy during the industrial revolution and the advent of the assembly line. But back then, economists remained confident that after a difficult period of adaptation, global wellbeing would grow. And it did.

Thanks to greater productivity, wages soared, which led to increasing demand for new consumption goods, in turn creating more jobs. John Maynard Keynes’ vision, which held that everybody would be richer in 2030 than in 1930, has largely come true.

Today, however, many economists look suspiciously at the increasing speed of technological progress and the parallel stagnation of living standards.

Ever since a computer first defeated a grand master at chess, we’ve grown suspicious of the capabilities that their intelligence would bring. Not only is their software more complex and more powerful, but they have access to a staggering amount of data, which enables them to compete with people in a growing number of areas.

Take, for example, general knowledge, illustrated in the still very popular American television game show Jeopardy. In early 2011, a machine built by IBM defeated the reigning champion of the quiz game. “Watson” listened to the questions, looked for the answers, pressed the buzzer and talked thanks to speech synthesis software — all without human help. It then chose the theme and the amount to wager for the upcoming question, just like real contestants must do.

Sectors at risk

One can only imagine how much more “Watson’s” grandchildren will be able achieve — and the jobs they may perform better than us. Not only those of the working class, who have already been replaced by robots on construction sites and assembly lines, but also in the services sector, which now represents two-thirds of the jobs in industrialized countries.

According to a study published in 2013 by two researchers from Oxford University, 47% of all U.S. jobs are “potentially automatable over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two.”

Those most at risk in the services sector are telemarketers, accountants, legal experts and journalists. Some software can already write decent articles working from a company’s financial figures or from the statistics of a sporting event. As for truck and taxi drivers, how will they be able to compete with the Google Car, the first prototypes of which are already driving down California roads?

Photo: Saad Faruque

Fabio Gramazio, an architect and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, co-created the first robotics laboratory applied to architecture. It uses relatively basic industrial robots to manufacture unique pieces and assemble different elements.

“It’s important to explore the complementarity between man and machine,” he said during the recent Lift conference in Geneva. “Humans dictate the rules, but robots can do things that humans can’t, like piling up elements with extreme precision.”

A freelance future

Gramazio believes that the technological revolution will create a difficult transition, but that new opportunities will eventually emerge. “I don’t see how a computer could cope with the complexity of a construction site,” he says. “Machines won’t replace humans, but will help them, and they will find new ways to work together.”

José Achache, director of AP-Swiss, a space applications and services company, describes how new technology can replace fundamental aspects of a farmer’s work. “With satellites and drones, you can observe the fields, determine with precision which parts need more water, fertilizer or pesticide,” he explains. “The images are sent to analytical apps that deliver it to the farmers. Since all tractors are now equipped with a GPS, the machine can very well be sent alone in the fields to do their work.”

Achache notes that a farmer “can already manage his harvest from his desk,” but the future may bring even more fundamental substitution technologies.

It will be necessary for humans to develop new skills, complementary to the machines’ work. But we will also need to adapt to an even more flexible and unstable job market. “Already, most people don’t keep their job at the same company all their lives,” explains Narkis Alon, a young Israeli who specializes in start-up management. “And this trend toward an ever more flexible job market will continue.”

Freelance jobs and work-on-demand will grow, as will so-called micro-enterprises with fewer than 10 employees.

This evolution implies that workers will have to learn how to sell themselves by advertising their skills and developing an image online for themselves. “We also need an ecosystem that’s favorable to the creation of start-ups,” Alon continues. “People need to be trained to develop their own ideas and be put in touch with investors.”

A radical solution

But what if a growing proportion of workers don’t find their place in this new economy? Sure, we will certainly need dentists, physiotherapists or child care workers for a long time still, but between the competition with computers and with developing countries — which will continue to provide a cheap workforce — more and more people are likely to find themselves with nothing to do.

This is Andrew McAfee’s theory. The principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, he believes robots will hijack many of our jobs and leave social upheaval in their wake. Unemployment as we know it today creates a whole range of problems, both personal and social. The Harvard teacher, who can scarcely be compared to a hippie or a communist, thinks the solution is to adopt a universal revenue.

This is the concept Che Wagner came to present at the Lift conference in Geneva. This young academic and militant is trying to convince Switzerland to adopt the principle of a universal revenue. According to him, work productivity today already makes it possible. This is how it would work: Each citizen would get a monthly wage with no strings attached. It wouldn’t be too high, but it would be sufficient to live decently. In Switzerland, for instance, it would be somewhere around 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800).

“If people no longer need to earn a living, they’ll be able to turn to the projects that matter to them,” he says. “They will have time to think about what they can give to society that corresponds to their abilities. They would therefore be more productive and more creative.”

It certainly would not be a problem if some people decided not to work anymore. In fact, there wouldn’t be enough for everyone to do. But what if nobody wants to do anything?

“A lot of people will want to work, because they’re interested and because they will want to increase their earnings,” Wagner replies. “When we collected signatures for our initiative, we conducted a little survey. When asked if they would wish to keep on working, 80% of the people said yes. But when we asked them if they thought other people would keep on working, 80% said no. The issue with our society is not one of having a work force. It’s about confidence.”