The Rising Acceptance of Robots in Germany and Workers’ Automation Angst
Zhijiang Zhao is a research intern at AICGS for Fall 2020. He supports fellows with research, monitors the news for articles related to AICGS’ research agenda, manages the outreach database, and writes for the Institute’s website.
Zhijiang recently completed his MA in German and European Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is interested in China and the future of transatlantic relations, artificial intelligence, and German history.
Zhijiang was an exchange student at the University of Mainz from 2016 to 2017. He interned at a local history research institute. He also lived in Berlin for a while, where he helped with Sarah Lawrence College’s summer art program. Zhijiang speaks Mandarin and German. He is learning French.
A 2017 report conducted by the Nomura Research Institute indicates that Germans tend to be conservative about new technologies and see robots as emotionless mechanic helpers, mainly for industrial purposes. Compared to Japanese and Americans, Germans have a relatively low acceptance and interaction rate with robots at retail stores and nursing care and medical service facilities. One viewer of a ZDF-Morganmagazin YouTube video featuring a robot in an old people’s home comments “people are crazy and want to replace everything with plastic and electricity.” This attitude appears to be changing amid the Covid-19 crisis. The German public now sees one big advantage of having robots: they are immune to the novel virus and never get sick. However, while the pandemic has given a push to automation in Germany’s retail, service, and industrial sectors, automation angst in the workplace persists.
Between April 2020 and May 2020, a research team at the TU Darmstadt surveyed around 250 Germans on their views toward android robots. The study found that more than two thirds of the respondents see a clear advantage of service robots during a time when human encounters risk infections. It is indicative of the increased acceptance of service robots in Germany. For example, since the spring of this year, some Edeka supermarkets have deployed humanoid robots called “Pepper” in their stores. The android stands near the checkout and reminds Edeka workers and shoppers to wear masks and follow social distancing rules. Pepper’s designers have programed it to use straightforward and friendly language to communicate with human users. Customers can interact with Pepper to find out if asparagus is on sale or whether the store still carries the products they need. Similarly, a few German nursing homes have employed a robot called “James,” designed by Robshare in Rhineland-Palatinate, to facilitate virtual visits. James connects family members with their loved ones in the nursing homes through video conferencing, as visitors stay away from the facilities due to quarantine restrictions.
In German factories where automation is already prevalent, industrial robots have helped many companies to keep at least some production lines in operation when workers cannot report for duty. The managing director of ABB Robotics Jörg Reger said in an interview that the Covid-19 crisis has given an enormous boost to his company’s automation business, and his clients have begun to understand the benefits of digitization and networked manufacturing. Kuka Robotics, another German tech firm, anticipates increased demand for robotic and automated solutions in the future from the growing use of robots during the pandemic.
The acceptance of robots in the workplace is more complicated than in nursing homes and grocery stores during a health crisis as the fear of unemployment caused by emerging technologies still permeates workplaces in Germany. Besides, an annual survey titled Die Ängste der Deutschen (the fears of Germans) conducted by the R+V insurance firm finds the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has aggravated Germans’ anxiety about unemployment. The fear of higher unemployment jumped from 28 percent in 2019 to 40 percent in 2020. In particular, low-skilled workers fear their jobs will eventually go to robots like Pepper and James even after the pandemic ends because companies may see robots as more cost-effective for simple tasks.
Fear is what the CEO of Fetch Robotics Melonee Wise characterizes as the first step of five stages of acceptance as robots enter the workforce. It’s a natural psychological response to robots’ reputation as human workers’ replacements. As workers learn to operate robots and realize their practicality, they move to the next two stages, apprehension and curiosity. Then workers enter the tolerance stage and become familiar with the presence of robots in workplace. Finally, there comes the satisfaction stage, in which workers accept robots as helpers and colleagues, not as their replacements. Furthermore, since robots helped many factories to partially open and kept orders coming during the pandemic, workers will no longer see robots as rivals but as solutions to avoid cutting hours or losing their jobs.
Even before 2020, it was becoming clear that the trend of increasing automation across economic sectors had not actually led to a higher rate of unemployment in Germany. In 2017, researchers from several German universities examined 20 years of employment data and found that despite the significant growth of automation in Germany’s manufacturing sector, it had not caused significant job loss. Instead, robots have changed the composition of Germany’s job market by driving the decline of manufacturing jobs and the rise of service jobs, especially among young workers. The study also found many medium-skilled manufacturing workers were able to keep their jobs thanks to flexible wage negotiations among unions and work councils and their companies. The workers were willing to accept lower wages in exchange for job security. German unions recognize that automation and digitalization have changed the nature of work fundamentally. To protect their members and remain as a powerful voice on labor issues, unions are active in addressing the employment challenges brought by robots. Looking ahead to the post-pandemic world, unions could help workers overcome their angst about robots and automation at an even faster pace.