Don’t be afraid of robots, says World Bank

The World Bank has published a report annually since 1978. Each report focuses on a detailed analysis of one aspect of economic development and for 2019 the topic is robots and automation and how it is impacting on the world of work.

Bloomberg interviewed Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, the World Bank’s Chief Economist, about the report and one of her first statements was: “This fear that robots have eliminated jobs — this fear is not supported by the evidence so far.”

The fear arises from the fact that in the first world a substantial number of jobs have been lost in the industrial sector, while in East Asia the there has been a rise in employment in industry. The World Bank report notes the anxiety about job losses, but claims “the number of jobs lost to automation is about equal to the number of jobs created, even if technology is changing the nature of those jobs in several ways.”

In the World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said:

“The nature of work is not only changing — it’s changing rapidly. We don’t know what jobs children in primary school today will compete for, because many of those jobs don’t exist yet. The great challenge is to equip them with the skills they’ll need no matter what future jobs look like — skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as interpersonal skills like empathy and collaboration. By measuring countries according to how well they’re investing in their people, we hope to help governments take active steps to better prepare their people to compete in the economy of the future.”

Koujianou Goldberg also commented on the changing nature of work, telling Bloomberg: “This is the fourth industrial revolution, there have been three before, and in each case we managed to survive so it’s not the case that machines completely eliminated humans.”

However, not everyone agrees with the World Bank’s assessment of the situation with regard to a radical change in the types of jobs available. Gizmodo argues that the World Bank has not considered the quality of the jobs available, or the social and cultural impact of the loss of certain jobs and responds to the idea of robotics bringing a fourth industrial revolution as an idea to be treated with caution. Gizmodo also says, “There is a reason that many of the regions hit hardest by automation voted in the largest numbers for Trump.”

It also points out that reports like the one from the World Bank are useful as a window into how elites — i.e., those doing a lot of the automating — view mechanization.

What is clear that there are good arguments from both viewpoints and that what we need is dialogue between the two, so that we plan for an industrial revolution that is less harmful to those communities most affected by automation than in the past.