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The rise of the Telerobotics

Globalisation is driven by the simple fact that some things are cheaper in one country than another. Some of the biggest price differences in the world concern wages and salaries, but since there is widespread political resistance to mass migration low-wage workers currently remain stuck at home. But what if workers could do work remotely?

A telerobotic is basically a robot controlled remotely by a human – remote intelligence rather than artificial intelligence. Given how workers are expensive and robots are getting cheaper, Richard Baldwin argues that telerobotics is likely to soon replace many manual workers. (1)Once robots get cheap enough, the manual services jobs of many in Britain will be in almost unmediated direct competition with those located elsewhere. Robots are unlikely to completely replace in-person workers, but they could certainly be used for a huge number of tasks ranging from cleaners and gardeners to road workers and factory workers.

Richard Baldwin’s new book The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization (Harvard University Press, November 24) argues that the next radical change in globalization is likely to be driven by information technology that allows workers in one nation to undertake service tasks in another nation—tasks that today require physical presence.  Two developments in particular will help makes this an everyday reality. Telerobotics will globalise competition for many types of manual work, while telepresence will globalise many types of white collar and/or professional brainwork.

Information Technology will also melt the language barrier. An important complement of this trend is the rapid development of computerized translation. When it comes to translating written words, amazing strides have been made in the last 10 years or so (by both Google Translate & Apple’s “iTranslate”). The language barrier, whether spoken or written, which has been an important separating force throughout human history may soon be lowered or even dismantled.

Telepresence will also impact massively to rustbelt white collar (so-called) brain workers living in developed nations in the same way offshoring and the unbundling effects of the new globalization has done for their blue collar contemporaries. One thing that has shielded many jobs in rich nations from the challenges and opportunities of globalisation is the need for face-to-face interaction in the provision of brain services. For reasons that are easy to believe but hard to explain, face-to-face interactions make cooperation easier, quicker and surer than, say, interactions by phone, email or skype. (2)

Telepresence would make it possible for developing nation professionals to work inside G7 offices without actually being there and much easier to coordinate the provision of (specialist and professional) brain power at great distances. Hereto, offshoring has mostly affected factory workers since manufacture stages are modular enough to pack up and send abroad. Apart from back office tasks, this has proven harder in the high-end service sectors since producing services involves lots of in-person interactions.

With telepresence, what is now commonplace in blue collar jobs will soon come to expensive workers in expensive offices in expensive cities. Given the vast North-South salary differences that exist for engineers, designers, accountants, lawyers, publishers and media people (& professors of economics!), the ability to fractionalize the production of business services could lead to a great deal of what might be called “virtual offshoring”, or tele-migration.

Richard Baldwin calls this “globalization’s third unbundling” – the ability to unbundling labour services from labourers and deliver them internationally. This new, international wage competition will be a massive shock to the workers that are currently ring-fenced namely, white collar and professional workers as well as labourers in non-traded sectors. This shock to their living standards, work volumes, social standing and complacency is likely wreak significant economic, political and societal transformation; most likely setting in train upheavals beyond the already dramatic impacts that the current distrust of elites finds political representation through support for Trump, Le Pen, Sanders or Corbyn.

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