All of a sudden, the robots are everywhere.
In supermarkets, at stations and airports and in restaurants there are machines doing jobs once done by people. In Edinburgh’s Princes Gardens this week I even came across a robotic lawnmower – although it did get stuck on the tarmac at one point. According to PWC’s report earlier this year, 30% of jobs in the UK will be at risk of automation by 2030. Who is safe from the unstoppable rise of the machines?
These issues and more were all discussed at our Trends Breakfast event this week in central London (you can access the slides here).
While there are challenges ahead our current understanding is tainted by some popular misconceptions which combined mean the future might be less apocalyptic than we fear.
Firstly, not everything that can be automated will be. In 2030, 30% of jobs might be automatable – that is, there will be technology available that can do that job – but it doesn’t mean it will be. Businesses will drag their heels investing in major tech upgrades and governments and regulators will have the power to step in to protect key industries (like India, which will limit Driverless Cars to protect driver jobs). Additionally, there will remain some unquantifiable aspects of our experiences that resist automation. There is already technology that could create a machine that does all the jobs of a bartender, but that bar would lack atmosphere, experience and customers.
Secondly, although STEM and IT skills will be hugely valuable in the future they will not be the only game in town. Our ageing and growing population will see demand rise for care workers, nurses and support staff, while our need to constantly train and learn (partly to stay relevant in the world of work, and partly because we want to) will mean teachers, coaches and educators will all stay in work. Any jobs where there is an emphasis on human interaction and interpersonal skills is futureproofed.
The biggest misconception is about the nature of the jobs that will be lost, with many suggestions that it is low-skilled jobs in the firing line. Actually, the fundamental rule of automation is not how skilled, or cognitive the job is, how much it pays or how many qualifications it takes to do it – but how routine it is. The more easily a job can be broken down into process driven tasks, the quicker it will be automated. This explains why non-routine manual jobs – janitors, gardeners, care workers, hospitality workers – will all be done by humans long after routine cognitive jobs in accountancy, data management, administration, the law and sales are in the hands of the computers. This should be the biggest concern, because a hollowing out of the jobs market creates a two-tiered, polarised market.
The threats of automation are immense but there are opportunities that get lost in the scaremongering. It is counter-intuitively encouraging to remind ourselves that virtually every job that has ever existed has already been replaced by technology. The key thing is to devote resources into mitigating the short term impacts of automation while understanding where the future jobs will come from. That foresight will enable society to calibrate its priorities and harness the potential of artificial intelligence.