Do robots and algorithms threaten livelihoods or offer liberty? Part 2

March 31, 2015
4 min read

As companies, brands and organisations increasingly look to automated methods for efficiency, in part 2 of a 2 part series Mintel’s senior trend consultant Richard Cope explores this trend, asking if robots and algorithms threaten livelihoods… or offer liberty?

Utopia: Convenience Nirvana

Back in the world of the here and now, automation is bringing us convenience – in the form of Infinium Serve’s flying robots that serve customers in Singaporean Timbre restaurants, protecting us in the guise of Congolese humanoid traffic cops in Kinshasa and educating and inspiring us, courtesy of Tate Britain’s robots that offer virtual tours of its exhibits after hours, online.

Advocates of automation douse the flames of the employment arguments by comparing their opponents to Britain’s 19th century Luddites who responded to the progressive threat of mechanization in the textiles industry by smashing looms. For instance, Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson asserts that “technology has always led to more jobs because it will always produce more things we can make and buy”, pointing to the IOS industry alone in America as a new ‘creative Hollywood’ that employs double the number of people of Tinsel town itself.

Medicine and Food for All

And to solely stigmatise automation as a conspiracy by greedy capitalists would be naïve to say the least. As with all progressive technologies, robotics are also being developed by scientists for the greater good. Faced with a future where we require a 100% increase in food production by 2050, innovations like the rolling American Tumbleweed and Spanish Rosphere robots can provide a solution by helping us to farm in remote or inhospitable regions and terrain, whilst Japan’s Rakubesuto exoskeleton ‘assist suits’ can help ageing farmers to be more productive.

The ageing of the population is another time bomb that robots can help to diffuse by offering in-home care, and this is why the Japan’s Robot Association confidently asserts that its market value will grow by 50% in the next decade. The quality of life of infirm, elderly consumers would also be improved immeasurably by the advent of those driverless cars currently being tested on the roads of Britain by the Department of Transport and the highways of America by Google. Unofficially the company is talking of 2020 as a realistic launch date, whilst the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers is confident that come 2040 some 75% of cars will be capable of driving and parking autonomously.

In healthcare, new 3D printed pharmaceutical patents pioneered by the likes of MIT and the UK’s University of Central Lancashire promise a more equal future, where patients will have access to affordable customized dosages of medicines, however rare their condition, or remote their location. Lancashire’s Dr. Mohamed Albed Alhnan predicts that come 2025, we will be printing off pharmaceuticals in our own homes.

Human Deluxe

Short of a revolt against the modern machines, we will see a reaction in the form of sharp elevation in the appreciation – and cost of – hand-made goods and human service. Concept cafes like Brooklyn’s Fine and Raw – which serves up high-end salted chocolate from an in store factory behind glass – and London’s Eat 17 – a family-run Spar grocery chain franchise which makes its own jam and stocks 400 local products – will multiply and grow in appeal as we seek authentic alternatives to the omnipresent creep of automation. We’ll also see more retailers follow the line of US health retailers like Walgreens and invest in new staff extensions like in-store dieticians to attract customers with a human element.
We’ve seen how virtual relationships might even threaten something of a sexual apocalypse, but reduced social or physical contact is already being actively countered by apps, sites and even clothes that subvert the hook-up tactics of the dating industry to the end goals of helping consumers find everyone from flat mates to sports team partners.

The threat of machines and systems to our livelihoods – and the accepted concept of capitalist consumer landscape – is real and may indeed require radical solutions like human quotas and artists’ patrons, but our humanity will also become a more prized sought and bought commodity as a consequence.

With over a decade of experience in market research, Richard works as a Trends Analyst, helping clients understand how global consumer trends impact their business. As a globally recognised leading trends commentator, he is regularly called on by media worldwide to provide insight and analysis into consumer trends, with recent highlights including the Guardian and BBC Radio 2.

If you would like to know what these trends – and others – mean for your business please contact Richard to discuss our trend presentation, project and facilitation services. E-mail:; Twitter: @Richard_Mintel

Richard Cope
Richard Cope

Richard is a Senior Trends Consultant, bringing the latest consumer trends to Mintel clients through bespoke presentations and represents Mintel at global conferences.

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