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Robots may reduce job opportunities and dampen consumption.

As a growing number of Chinese factories use robots to replace human labor, one Silicon Valley veteran warns that the trends may reduce job opportunities and dampen consumption.

“Now we have reached a tipping point where machines can displace a lot of people. That can be a big economic and social problem,” said Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” in an exclusive interview with Xinhua.

Data from the International Federation of Robotics show that industrial robot sales to China jumped 54 percent to hit 56,000 units in 2014, making China the world’s biggest market for robots.

In the future, factory workers may not only have to compete among themselves, but also with robots for job opportunities.

“As you have better robots, eventually there’s going to be displacement,” he said. “And you’re losing consumers because you’re losing jobs. Or perhaps technology is repressing their wages.”

Developed countries like the US have gone through similar phases in which traditional factory jobs were lost to automation.

But Ford says these changes happened at a time when technology was less advanced, and those who were displaced could move to jobs in the service sector.

But for that to happen, “you need to have consumers that can buy those services,” said Ford, a leading artificial intelligence and job automation expert.

Nowadays, even the service industry is slowly getting rid of human labor. Some Chinese restaurants are already employing robotic waiters. Stores that can accept forms of mobile payment may not need clerks in the future.

Ford said jobs that are routine and predictable will be most easily replaced by automated alternatives, while jobs that require more creative input will remain available.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s low-skilled or high-skilled jobs. The question is if it is really predictable,” Ford said.

Even journalism is not immune to this trend. The Associated Press started issuing corporate earnings reports in 2014 that were written by computer programs.

Ford clarified that he doesn’t oppose technological advancement in general. But he also stressed the importance of improving the vocational education so that it suits today’s automation trend and creating a social welfare system that is sufficiently capable of supporting displaced workers.

“We have to adapt our system. A radical example would be a guaranteed income, whether or not people are able to find a traditional job,” he said.

Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and has published two books on the trend of automation, including “Rise of the Robots,” which was published in Chinese earlier this month.

China Daily
 

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