The rise of automation has already had a significant impact on the work lives of millions of people — and it shows no signs of stopping. In a study released earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics found 1.5 million workers in Britain at “high risk of losing their jobs to automation”, with women and low-paid workers bearing the brunt of the risk. And another paper published in Social Science and Medicine found that exposure to automation risk exacerbated poor health: higher risk of automation meant higher job uncertainty and subsequently a greater chance of physical and mental health problems.
All of which makes the findings of a new Nature Human Behaviour study on almost 2,000 North American and European participants even more surprising. While most people prefer it when workers are replaced by humans, not robots, the majority of those surveyed said that if their job was at risk, they would find it less upsetting for it to be handed to robots rather than other employees.
In an initial series of studies, Armin Granulo from the Technical University of Munich and colleagues asked participants to imagine a scenario where a company was to replace its employees either with new staff or with robots. When participants imagined they were just an observer, 67% said they would rather staff were replaced by other humans. But when they imagined that they were a staff member themselves, only 40% said they would prefer to be replaced by a human over a robot.
In a subsequent study, the team measured negative emotional reactions — how sad, frustrated or angry participants felt about staff being replaced by humans or robots. Results echoed the previous studies: robotic replacement produced more of a negative reaction when participants imagined other people’s jobs being replaced, while the opposite was true when it was their own job.
Delve a little deeper into this apparent contradiction and it starts to make a bit more sense. Our jobs are closely linked to our feelings of self-worth and identity, and robots pose far less of a threat to these things than do humans, who have more of an impact on how we feel about ourselves, our talent and our worth at work or at home. Indeed, in further studies the team found that participants rated replacement by robots as less threatening to their identity than replacement by other humans.
Co-author Christoph Fuchs says the results show just how profoundly people think of their work lives in a social context — even when introduction of new technology results in their unemployment. “It is important to understand these psychological effects when trying to manage the massive changes in the working world to minimize disruptions in society,” he says.
The team also believes that its findings could prove helpful for those who have been made redundant. If you’ve lost your job to a robot, rather than another human, you may not need coaching around self-esteem or self-worth, and can instead focus on building skills or searching for new roles.
At present, most research around automation looks directly at the job market — what industries are most susceptible, for instance, or how an increase in AI or robot workers will impact labour practices and the economy. But with more and more jobs set to be affected by automation, the potential effect on the human sense of self, as this study deftly demonstrates, is worth exploring too.