The battle for Norwegian jobs is not won by fighting the robots. We need robots when we are going to create new jobs.
Many fear that robots and artificial intelligence are a threat to the workplace. This summer the theme was discussed in a series of texts in the technology column in the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv. One of them describes how robots will take over agriculture, another claims that the bureaucrat of the future is digital.
Do we really have a reason to fear a ‘jobless’ society if we release the robots?
In any case, Norwegian society will be challenged. 3D printing will be a game changer in both production and logistics, and driverless cars will take over the roads just as driverless aircrafts will take over the airspace. Digitisation and automation are underway and progressing at an ever-increasing rate, and meanwhile the sharing economy challenges many established hegemonies.
Robotisation has historically been defined as the use of automated, human-like machines, usually designed as an arm, to perform industrial tasks previously carried out by humans. Today the term is much broader and includes both hardware and software that – through automated controls and artificial intelligence – performs both physical and cognitive tasks for us humans.
How can we make a living if this means that the need for human labour is disappearing?
For decades, Norwegian companies have outsourced the practical execution of large-scale competence projects to low-cost countries such as South Korea. Today we export raw materials, engineering knowledge and practical expertise, and import finished products and assets. It is somewhat naive to believe that the countries that take over our production and practical tasks do not aim to take over our knowledge-based services as well. The development in Asia shows that this is precisely what is happening.
Today, South Korea is far ahead of us as a nation when it comes to robotisation of industry. Norway is currently number 24 on the list of the relative use of robots in the industry, and we are still moving downwards. South Korea towers at the top of the same list, and the trend is increasing. At the same time, the country has a strong annual growth in the service industries.
Our existing service industries are suited to today’s business world, and they are about to become automated by systems with artificial intelligence and cognitive analytical skills. The robots have entered the banking, finance and insurance sectors, and more sectors are still to come.
This can affect future employment if no changes are made, as the service industry makes up 70 per cent of the GDP and almost 80 per cent of full-time positions in Norway at present.
Wages in South Korea have risen in line with skills development in the country. When we began outsourcing projects to Asia in the 1980s the Norwegian wage level was 75 times higher than the Asian. Today it is ten times higher. Our challenge is that the Asians have embraced technological development and increased their efficiency, and in the process they have increased their competitive ability in line with the wages.
In Norway we have gone in the opposite direction. Salaries have increased and our competitive ability has decreased.
The future struggle for jobs does not take place towards the bottom of the food chain, but soars upwards – it is a race to the top. Both ‘the Internet of things’ and the sharing economy are based on the premise that someone actually produces and owns assets at the bottom of the food chain, as a basis for sharing, development and innovation towards the top of the chain.
We lack practical tasks to develop and robotise in Norway, and for the same reason we have little robotised production that can stand up to the competition. The trend in South Korea shows that new and robotised forms of production create new service industries with new jobs.
There are Norwegian companies that have succeeded in automating and robotising, either as a natural part of the development as Norwegian wages have risen, or by insourcing vulnerable forms of production. These companies can compete against Asian businesses, and this shows that it is possible for a high-cost country such as Norway to maintain a competitive production.
The key to national success here lies in using new technology combined with tasks this technology can solve to create products and services that can be traded for money in a global market. This will ensure future jobs and welfare, also for future generations. This is a battle for robots, not against them.