Estonian robot developers are solving two problems at once: using tech to fill the gaps in workforce where people don’t want to work anymore and creating new, smart and well-paid jobs.
People have to be ready to learn new things
Cleveron, the Estonian manufacturer of package machines and delivery robots, has created many new jobs as well as opened Cleveron Academy in cooperation with the private university Mainor to attract new talent. Laido Valdvee, the Academy’s internships coordinator, works daily with students on the development of self-propelled robots.
“The main question of whether robots will take away jobs from people cannot be answered conclusively,” he says. “There are jobs which are very likely to not exist 20 years from now but there are also jobs which will remain. And there will surely be new jobs appearing in place of the ones that become obsolete. This in turn means that people have to be ready to learn new things.”
He also admits there could be a situation where it becomes impossible to keep people in the labour market. “There have been talks about introducing a universal basic income and taxing robots in that case,” he says. But there are still professions where one can breathe easy. “Scientists, engineers, developers and people in creative fields do not need to worry that much,” Valdvee said.
The youth understand this trend very well. “When asking students about their decision to study robotics software development, we found that they see it as a profession which guarantees a stable job in the future. Perhaps that is why the field is so popular in Estonia; we have realised old jobs will not bring success,” Valdvee said.
Cleveron as well as Cleveron Academy make substantial investments into the development of self-propelled robots. “In the future, however, this will mean that the need for piloting all sorts of moving things will decrease or disappear altogether,” Valdvee explained. “Once the first fully autonomous vehicles reach the market, the need for people to own cars will disappear. Why buy a car when you can order an autonomous vehicle that will take you anywhere at anytime for cheap? Even now, looking out of my office window, I see tens of cars just sitting in parking lots most of the time. Autonomous vehicles should fix that.”
Unfortunately, according to Valdvee, this would also eliminate all jobs related to piloting vehicles. “Due to this, I would not suggest becoming a driver in the future. Large modern warehouses are also becoming more and more automated,” he said. The jobs of some construction workers might also be in danger. Large 3D printers that can print houses already exist. In addition to robots, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is also developing every day. In medicine, A.I. can detect cancer in its very early stages based on the results of various tests.
Many past jobs are not missed
Valdvee remembered that the arrival of computers and the first robots took away many jobs but also created many others. For example, in agriculture, the large workforce from three decades ago has found easy application elsewhere and farms have been automated. “Robot barns with robot milkmaids are not rarities anymore,” he brought as an example. Robots also dominate the automotive manufacture industry. “These are all jobs which 20 years ago were still occupied by humans. Nowadays, people are needed to develop programs for these machines, not for manual labour,” Valdvee said.
Taavi Rõivas, former Prime Minister of Estonia and Chairman of the Board of self-driving vehicle developer Auve Tech added that many jobs that existed before the industrial revolution 200 years ago are not missed today. Manual and routine work today can also become more and more automated in the future. There will be completely different new professions in 25 or 100 years. For example, shopping will be completely different – a fully automated experience where delivery robots can deliver goods to a private package machine 24/7 without requiring someone to be at home. Not to mention, fridges will be able to make shopping lists for missing food items.
The unequal effects of automation are also confirmed by an Oxford Economics studyfrom a couple of years ago, stating that the loss of jobs due to robots has the biggest impact on low-income regions. On average, every robot takes away 1.6 jobs but in low-income areas that number increases to 2.2, while in regions with higher living standards it is only 1.3 jobs. In other words, smart jobs are threatened less by robots and, as we have seen in Estonia, they even help to create new smart jobs.
Auve Tech itself offers a last mile service and according to Rõivas, they do not directly take away anyone’s job but instead create new and more comfortable opportunities. The development of their service could decrease the need for cars and thus also the need for car parks, ultimately decreasing carbon emissions and thus improving the living environment among other things. It is, however, clear that in a few decades, the need for professional drivers will decrease. But no one is recommending that profession to young people anyway.
Auve Tech, with around 50 employees, has also created the world’s first autonomous hydrogen vehicle. By September, the streets of Estonia as well as Finland, Poland and the Netherlands will see around ten autonomous vehicles that can also work on unpaved roads and snow if necessary. “Hyperbolically speaking, you could also blame e-mail for taking away the jobs of mail carriers,” Rõivas says. “But at the same time, we can now exchange more information a hundred times faster which in turn has created new jobs.”
Robots for jobs we don’t want to do
“Robots are replacing humans in the jobs people don’t want to do. At the same time people are very difficult to replace in the jobs that they do want to do,” says Alan Adojaan, developer of the robot-bartender Yanu. His idea originated from a practical need. Adojaan spent nearly 15 years working in bars and night clubs and experienced first-hand how there was a lack of staff on weekends while hiring more people resulted in them standing idle most of the time.
According to Adojaan, a bartender’s job on Friday or Saturday nights is often just the repetitive filling of glasses. Not like in films where bartenders have long and heartfelt conversations with clients. “That is a myth,” said Adojaan with plenty of experience in the sector. At the same time, he admits that in fancier places like restaurants where the speed and efficiency of service are not as important as the quality of service and personal care (and the higher prices), the human element will always remain.
Still, a growing trend, primarily in the developed western world, is that there is a lack of service workers which has only been amplified in the post-COVID world. A good example would be the US, where the wages of service workers have increased significantly after COVID restrictions were lifted. Many people do not want to return to their jobs in the service sector because of the infection risk. This creates yet more incentive to develop the robot bartender because in addition to being able to efficiently do a human’s job, it also eliminates the risk of infection. Adojaan says this has become widely understood and he has been contacted by places like the Singapore airport with plans to replace humans with robots in bars.
So the robot bartender Yanu does not take away jobs but instead fills a gap in the workforce and creates new jobs. Yanu has 23 employees and is connected to nearly a hundred jobs indirectly. Meanwhile, the robot itself is still in its developmental phase. In the future, the robots being deployed all over the world will not only need developers and builders but also maintenance workers and installers. Adojaan predicts that the future will belong to smart jobs.
The first prototype of Yanu is installed at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, the second is at the Dubai EXPO and this year, clients should also receive a third and fourth and hopefully also a fifth robot bartender. According to Adojaan, Estonia is the best place to develop Yanu because of the invaluable scientists of the University of Tartu, the strong quality control, the low threat of espionage and open-mindedness. Estonians are enthusiastic about testing and trying new things. The first robots are being used for testing and troubleshooting bugs and within a year, Adojaan hopes to start mass producing Yanu. According to the business plan, this would mean 100 new machines per year. To achieve these goals, a fundraising is being planned soon.
The report of the World Economic Forum confirms what enterpreneurs have said by pointing out that the number of jobs in the world will increase by 58 million as a result of automation.
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