Most people would rather lose their job to a robot than another human
5 August 2019
By Chelsea Whyte
People have mixed feelings about robots taking their jobs
If you were going to lose your job, would you prefer to be replaced by a robot or another person? If you said robot, you’re in the majority. Most people would prefer a robot to take their job if they had to lose it, but they would prefer to see another human step in if a co-worker was going to lose theirs.
“Being replaced by modern technology versus being replaced by humans has different psychological consequences,” says Armin Granulo at Technical University of Munich in Germany. He and his colleagues set out to examine these differences.
They asked 300 people to judge whether they would prefer an existing member of staff to be replaced by a robot or a human. In that case, 62 per cent of people said they preferred to have a human step in. But when they were asked to shift their perspective and imagine losing their own job, 37 per cent preferred being replaced by a human rather than a robot.
In a follow up, Granulo and his team asked 251 people to indicate the intensity of their negative emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration when considering new employees being replaced by humans or robots. When the questions referred to replacing other people’s jobs with robots, the respondents said they had stronger negative emotions than when they considered losing their own job to a robot.
The team found that people rated robots as less threatening to their self-identity than human replacements in a job setting. They asked questions about which type of replacement would make someone feel more devalued, raise more doubts about themselves, or make them question their own abilities.
That may be because people don’t feel they can or must compete with a robot or a piece of software in the same way as they might another person, says Granulo.
Jobs for robots
Granulo and his team also surveyed 296 workers from the manufacturing industry. They found that a third thought their current job could be replaced by technology in the near future, but these workers expressed the same pattern of preference for being replaced by robots rather than people.
Those who thought their jobs were likely to be replaced may not be wrong. In 2013, Carl Frey and colleagues at the University of Oxford in the UK categorised jobs by how easily they could be done by machines, and found that about half the jobs in the US could be done by robots in the next 20 years. Others have done similar studies and though they have come up with different figures, most researchers agree large numbers of jobs will be automated in the near future.
“One thing I found is that workers prefer automated plants to non-automated plants, because they don’t have to do as much heavy lifting. But people mind the transitions. When something was just being introduced, they did worry about loss of responsibility, that could worry them about their jobs,” says Frey.
He says that some jobs may simply shift to adapt to technological advances. For example, a bank teller 40 years ago handled more cash and dealt with transactions that an ATM may take care of today. “But those jobs still exist. Now, a bank teller is more of a relationship manager. The job disappeared, but we don’t think of it that way, because what matters to people is if they are replaced,” says Frey.
But low-skilled, low-income jobs may be fully replaced by automation, he says. “It’s the warehouse workers, the cashiers, the receptionists, the truck drivers that are most exposed to the tech we see on the horizon. We don’t have autonomous vehicles on the road, we don’t have Amazon Go [employee-free convenience stores] in many places but I’m sure we’re going to have them eventually.”
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0670-y