#shiftchange: What Happens If Colleague Robot Takes Over Our Jobs?


Sabine Bendiek, Area Vice President, Microsoft Germany

Sabine Bendiek, Area Vice President of our partner Microsoft Germany, tackles the issue of Work 4.0 in her external post.

Who offers more? Will 40, 50, or even 60 percent of all jobs be replaced by smart machines over the next couple of years? Will factory workers or office staff fall victim to digitalization? Will the middle class be hit hardest by the imminent wave of automation or will poorly paid, low skilled jobs be rationalized? Will especially highly developed industrial nations or emerging markets benefit from the next technology leap?

Labor market and economic researchers, manufacturing experts and political commentators eagerly indulge in this kind of guesswork. The outcome of their conclusions substantially depends on their personal or occasionally, even earmarked optimism or pessimism.

Will factory workers soon destroy industrial robots or office staff sabotage servers?

The fact is: Technological progress has so far created more jobs than it has destroyed. The same applies to digitalization. Although two of three employees have regularly used computers in Germany as early as in 1999, insurable employment has risen ever since. Another fact is: Over the past 200 years, machines have primarily taken over monotonous, often poorly paid and physically stressful jobs, and frequently, even jobs that are harmful to our health.

But, there is yet another fact: Throughout history, there have been many victims of progress. The onset of the mechanical loom has deprived thousands of weavers in England or Silesia of their already precarious existence. The riots of the "luddites" at the beginning of the 19th century were an expression of the deep despair of these people. This notwithstanding, I don’t believe that factory workers will destroy industrial robots or office staff sabotage servers in the years to come.

For the vast majority of jobs digitalization primarily brings about change

Of course, some professions will vanish entirely in the next few years. According to the Institute for Labor Market and Occupational Research (Institut für Arbeitsmarkt und Berufsforschung, IAB), however, only 0.4 percent of German employees will be affected. For the vast majority of jobs digitalization primarily brings about change – specific parts of our jobs will be performed by smart machines in the future. All professions are affected, more or less. The more a job is affected, the higher is its proportion of automated routine tasks.

For many people, change entails opportunities: If robots write financial news and weather reports in the future, journalists will have more time for in-depth analyses or pointed opinions. If algorithms make statistically based suggestions for therapies, doctors will have more time to talk to the patient. And, while smart programs search the web for relevant judgments that establish principles, lawyers prepare their pleas for the next day. In other words: If colleague robot performs the monotonous parts of our work, we will have more time for the really essential things: for thoughts, for creativity and for social interaction. And, that does not only apply to academics!

No reason for panic, but for discussions

Evangelists of Singularity firmly believe that we will solve the most serious issues of humanity with the help of new technologies before long. In his bestseller Abundance Peter Diamandis talks of a future in which we will be able to fulfill everyone’s requirements on our planet based on artificial intelligence and on other exponentially growing technologies – a beautiful vision!

In terms of the future of our work, I hope that as many people as possible will get to benefit from the opportunities of digitalization. Initially, we will need to empower the greatest possible number of people to use artificial intelligence and reasonably apply human intelligence – keywords in this context are qualification, coding, #betterlearning.

Moreover, it involves that we apply the productivity gains that we will generate thanks to thinking machines in a way that ensures as many people as possible benefit from it. It will probably require us to redefine the term "work" in its entirety. The fact is that all of us need to adopt to change and assume more responsibility. I think that there is no reason for panic, but every reason for discussion.

I look forward to discussing this post and receiving your comments under the hashtag #shiftchange, at re:publica, on our Tumblr or everywhere else!


photo: Microsoft