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Key insights for the 2035 robot revolution: New report

A “robot revolution” will transform the global economy over the next 20 years, cutting the costs of doing business but exacerbating social inequality, as machines take over everything, according to a new study by investment bank Bank of America Merrill Lynch
“We are facing a paradigm shift which will change the way we live and work,” the authors say. “The pace of disruptive technological innovation has gone from linear to parabolic in recent years. Penetration of robots and artificial intelligence has hit every industry sector, and has become an integral part of our daily lives.”
The report outlines the opportunities for investors in robotics and artificial intelligence and cites recent research including Oxford University research that finds the coming revolution could leave up to 35% of all workers in the UK, and 47% of those in the US, at risk of being displaced by technology.
“The trend is worrisome in markets like the US because many of the jobs created in recent years are low-paying, manual or services jobs which are generally considered ‘high risk’ for replacement,” the bank says.
“One major risk off the back of the take-up of robots and artificial intelligence is the potential for increasing labour polarisation, particularly for low-paying jobs such as service occupations, and a hollowing-out of middle income manual labour jobs.”
On a more positive note, the authors calculate that the total global market for robots and artificial intelligence is expected to reach $152.7bn (£99bn) by 2020, and estimate that the adoption of robotics technologies could improve productivity by 30% in some industries.
The report cites research indicating the benefits of robotics and automation. It urges consumers to invest in businesses that are already taking advantage of the benefits of the new technologies: “Early adoption will be a key comparative advantage, while those that lag in investment will see their competitiveness slip.”
However, they emphasise that major ethical and social issues will increasingly arise: moral questions about the growing use of unmanned drones in warfare and pressure groups such as the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
Beijia Ma, the report’s lead author, said the best advice for people fearing the rise of the robots is to turn to education. 
However, lack of foresight regarding the new relationship between work and society could lead to growing disparity between economic winners and losers.
Report insights include: 
  • Burger flippers are next in line for automation with the invention of a new system from a San Francisco-based start-up
  • While “offshoring” can cut labour costs by 65%, replacing workers with machines can cut them by up to 90%. The process is well advanced in countries such as Japan and South Korea.
  • Financial advisers could soon be replaced by increasingly sophisticated algorithms with precision tailored, personalised advice.
  • Some 570,000 robo-surgeries have now been performed. Medical robotics has applications in everything from diagnosis to “robotic controlled catheters.”
  • The global personal robot market, spearheaded by “care-bots”, could increase to $17bn over the next five years, “driven by rapidly ageing populations, a looming shortfall of care workers, and the need to enhance performance and assist rehabilitation of the elderly and disabled”.
Among the commentaors shedding light on increasingly disparate perspectives of what robotics and automation will bring, John Markoff, a New York Times science reporter, is the author of the new book on robots and humans. He points out that human design will have much influence over how the revolution pans out: 
“There is a broad deterministic view in society that the machines are designing themselves,” he writes,” and that’s just not what’s happening. The machines are not designing themselves and they’re not going to design themselves in our lifetime. All of these questions about what our relationship to the machines will be are things that are designed by humans, so it’s a human question.”
Robots, he believes, won’t be in a position to go the last mile and become a threat to humanity for a long time to come. Cognition is a major obstacle here:
“We’ve made some real progress in perception. Machine learning, computers, are being to see, they’re beginning to speak and listen, they are not beginning to think. There is not a lot of progress that’s made in cognition. The striking thing … I look at this as a sociologist. What’s remarkable about the AI field is this is a field that has overpromised and underdelivered historically since its very inception. What’s different now? They’re overpromising again.” 
So, let’s not be overly optimistic (or even pessimistic) about AI’s capabilities, but the recent Deloitte report on the impact of techology on UK jobs provides evidence that robotics has already delivered promising results: 
“While technology has potentially contributed to the loss of approximately 800,000 lower-skilled jobs, there is equally strong evidence to suggest that it has helped to create nearly 3.5 million new higher-skilled ones in their place.
Each one of these new jobs pays, on average, £10,000 more per annum than the one lost. Crucially, every nation and region of the UK has benefitted, and we estimate that this technology-driven change has added £140 billion to the UK’s economy in new wages.”
Future-perfect? Perhaps not, but a good basis from which to start a genuine debate about that tricky rebalancing act that needs to take place for further advantageous factors to accrue. 
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