A study by researchers at Sweden’s prestigious Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), which looks ahead at the likely impact of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics on people’s lives, should calm the nerves of economic planners and private citizens.
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The SSE study The substitution of labour concluded that the introduction of automation technologies will be gradual, and the long-term potential for society is job creation rather than job losses.
The study took the fundamental view that the potential to automate non-routine tasks is likely to remain limited.
This is the fifth report produced under the SSE’s three-year research project, “The internet and its direct and indirect effects on innovation and the Swedish economy”. The project is being funded by Internetstiftelsen i Sverige (Sweden’s Internet Foundation).
At its core, the SSE report investigated the potential long-term impact of AI, machine learning and robotics technologies in the general area of labour replacement.
“We found that technology advancement is unlikely to result in mass unemployment,” said Jochem van der Zande, one of the four researchers behind the SSE study. “It will, rather, lead to more intense collaboration between humans and machines in a way that will change the focus of human labour.”
The study included an impact assessment of new technologies and their likely influence on the Swedish economy. It concluded that although change will be pervade business and industry, influencing how organisations and their employees function, the automation of individual activities is unlikely to displace the majority of working roles and functions that are in place today.
In its own planning strategies for the economy, the Swedish government sees benefits in the ever-changing nature of jobs within increasingly technology-driven workplaces. There is an acceptance that more routine tasks will be replaced by machines, but there is a basic belief that in the future, humans will work more closely with machines rather than be replaced by them.
“We should not be too afraid of change,” said Ylva Johansson, minister of employment and integration. “Some old jobs will disappear, but new jobs will emerge. Ask any union leader in Sweden if they are fearful of change and the universal response will be a solid ‘no’. Union bosses are less fearful of new methods than they are about old technologies.”
The SSE study identified equipment manufacturing, transportation, high-street retailing, warehousing and the wholesale trade as the sectors most likely to replace human workers with AI and robotic automation.
Technical challenges remain
But significant technical challenges to mass automation remain unsolved, according to the SSE study. Computers may well be better at fast-tracking tasks, such as retrieving information from databases, but they lack the capacity and sophistication to compete with human creative intelligence.
Computers also fall short in the routine production of ideas and conceptual thinking. Also, humans perform better in familiar noise-rich working environments, such as manufacturing halls, restaurants and airports.
Machines also lack social and emotional capabilities, although advances in AI and machine learning suggest that gap is narrowing. The SSE researchers said that, based on the current rate of technological progress, many elements of the social and emotional capabilities gap could be effectively eliminated in 20 to 30 years’ time.
“Creative intelligence is the key – and that is currently one of the most difficult capabilities to automate,” said the report. “To be creative, one must be able to make new combinations of familiar concepts, which requires a rich body of knowledge.”
Sweden’s unstoppable march towards the integration of AI, machine learning and robotics technologies is being fuelled by industry. Swedish companies hope that automation will provide a new dynamic tool to help them compete with goods and services produced in low-cost labour markets in Asia and Eastern Europe.
Latest figures from Sweden’s Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation show a high level of support, both in society and in business, for scaled-up use of AI and robotics. About 80% of Swedes are positive about the idea of increased use of AI and robotics, believing that a move to more computer-based functions will be good for society and the national economy in the long term.
And Sweden’s increasing engagement with AI, machine learning and robotics is not going unnoticed internationally. More Swedish firms, especially those involved in advanced commercial-scale research projects, are likely to be targeted by foreign suitors.
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This new trend for acquisitions became apparent when Huachangda Intelligent Equipment, a Chinese industrial robot integrator primarily servicing China’s auto industry, bought Västerås-based Robot System Products (RSP) in November 2017. RSP, which was spun off from the ABB Group in 2003, has operating units in Sweden, Germany and China and produces a range of integral products for robots, including grippers, welding equipment and tool changers.
Sweden’s main services sector also intends to use more AI, machine learning and robotics to automate routine customer-related operations. Swedbank’s increased focus on the digitisation and automation of day-to-day banking services may prove crucial to the bank’s goal of keeping its cost base below SEK17bn (€1.7bn) in 2018 and 2019. Swedbank’s digital-AI-machine learning transition and integration project began in 2016 and is led by its digital banking unit headed by Lotta Lovén.
Ultimately, the SSE’s report paints a positive picture of a future where machines perform more of the routine tasks currently carried out by humans. It underlines the obvious economic benefits of implementing automation, including reduced payroll costs resulting from the substitution of human labour.
The expanded use of AI, machine learning and robotics will inevitably lead to workplaces where fewer employees will be needed to achieve the same output because of increased productivity.
Other value-added advantages of automation include increased throughput and productivity, improved safety, reduced waste, and higher quality. For both the private and public sectors, this will help to reduce operating and administration costs, translating into improved operating margins for business and industry.