Will machines take over? Here’s how to profit from it – just in case

Robot ‘actroids’ will be waiting to check you in from this summer

Seeing as I’m an endangered species, I’ll keep this brief.

There’s an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is (briefly) replaced as captain of the Enterprise by the ‘M5’, a supercomputer. He’s none too keen on the idea, and wonders aloud: “Am I afraid of losing my job to that computer?”

Last week, Forbes magazine released a list of five jobs that have already gone to robots. Among the financial analysts, advisors and online marketers was the humble financial reporter.

Now I know how Captain Kirk felt.

But at least I’m not alone.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at three jobs that robots have already been recruited to do this year. You can rest easy for the moment, they’re all in Japan. If you missed it, here’s a recap:

The bank clerk

Bank Mitsubishi UFJ has hired pint-sized robot Nao to work in its branches from next month. Created by French firm Aldebaran Robotics, he has sensors in his head that respond to customers’ facial expressions and tone of voice. (Presumably for when he’s turning down overdraft extensions.)

The hotel receptionist


This ‘actroid’ will be manning the reception desk at the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki

Check in to the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki from July and you will be greeted by a smiling young woman. But don’t get too excited, she is in fact an ‘actroid’ – a robot designed to look like a human.

Made by robotics firm Kokoro, she speaks four languages, including English. And while you’re still trying to figure out where the batteries go, a handy little robotic bellhop will have relieved you of your luggage. Whether you’ll find him in your room, waiting for a tip has yet to be seen.

The sales assistant


Robot Pepper is already helping out at mobile phone stores in Tokyo

Pepper, another Aldebaran robot, will be busy selling Nespresso coffee machines in hundreds of stores by the end of the year, Nestlé Japan has said. The 120-cm tall ‘emotional’ robot (he is selling coffee products after all) is already at mobile phone SoftBank stores in Tokyo.

Automated threats to jobs don’t stop with robots. Just ask a cabbie what he thinks of self-driving cars. Google, Tesla, possibly Apple, and many of the mainstream makes are all busy working on cars that’ll whisk junior off to school, while you roll over and go back to sleep. (You haven’t got a job, remember.)

Check out what my colleague Matthew Partridge had to say on the rise of robot cars in a recent issue of MoneyWeek. (If you’re not already a subscriber, get your first four issues free.) And also in a recent Money Morning.

Is the robot threat overdone?

But do we really have anything to fear from the friendly-looking Nao and Pepper? MIT economics professor David Autor thinks not. He’s quoted in the Wall Street Journal blog as saying machines are here not to replace human workers, but rather to make them more productive. It’s also the lower-paid jobs that’ll go first, he said – which is just as well as he was talking to a room full of bankers at the time.

The FT reported on Junji Tsuda, chief executive of Japanese robotics company Yaskawa Electric, who doesn’t think robotic hands are developing fast enough to pose a threat. “There are many robots under development that are intelligent but can’t do anything”, he said. (Then again, the same could be said of university graduates.)

There’s also the argument that robots will create jobs as well as destroy them, since, as Tsuda points out, we’re going to need an army of human engineers to service all these mechanoids.

What is clear is that whatever your feelings on robotic colleagues, it looks like they’re here to stay. If you’re interested in having a punt on the rise of intelligent machines, our editor-in-chief Merryn Somerset Webb, took a look at the nine best robotic stocks last November. It’s well worth a read.

As for me, I’m with the recently departed sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy, who in his incarnation as Star Trek science officer Spock, said “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them”. The question is, will we have a choice?

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