Automation has been a constant theme over the last 200 years. So is the hype about robots stealing our jobs overblown?
From the seed drill to the personal computer, tech has transformed the world of work and employment. Despite this disruptive innovation, there are more people employed in the UK than ever, with unemployment levels at the lowest for 30 years.
Should we be concerned about the rise of the machine? In some ways, yes, as we can’t be completely sure how things will play out. What is different about the Fourth Industrial Revolutions (4IR) is that we are automating brain power, not just muscle power. Automation doesn’t acknowledge the colour of your collar and the degrees you hold. There is no reason why machines won’t be better and cheaper than humans at giving legal, medical and investment advice. They are certainly going to be safer drivers. It is reasonable to expect a lot of change, at an incredible pace. So how should we prepare?
There is no reason why machines won’t be better and cheaper than humans at giving legal, medical and investment advice.
First, we need to keep calm. There have been many reports in recent years highlighting the professions at risk of automation. These have been timely in helping people and politicians to understand the significant changes ahead and should be used to stimulate some deep thinking.
Secondly, the best way to shape change is to embrace it. Being at the forefront of innovation gives us the opportunity to influence it. The UK’s leadership in machine learning and artificial intelligence gives us an opportunity to understand the direction of innovation, and to steer it towards opportunities and good outcomes.
Thirdly, we should be optimistic that automation has historically been about augmentation. We have used tech to be more productive and to change work; to augment humans, not to replace them.
Some tasks will be replaced by machines, but not overnight, and by using tech to be more productive we free up resources to create new opportunities. There may be shocks and some professions could be impacted quickly, but the productivity gains will help our nation become a smarter UK with benefits absorbed and re-circulated in the economy. Indeed, according to Accenture, artificial intelligence could increase labour productivity by 25% by 2035 and will benefit GDP, with estimates suggesting UK economic growth could increase from 2.5% to 3.9% by 2035.
Fourthly, we should be realistic that the 4IR will require some big policy responses. The most obvious being about how we help people adapt and stay relevant in a fast-changing labour market. This isn’t about exhortations to people to ‘stay epic’, rather, thinking practically about how adults with financial obligations – like mortgages, children, elderly parents to support and pensions to contribute to – will be supported and directed in retraining. From a societal perspective, this is as important as the discussion about how we pay for pensions and social care as the state depends upon people staying productive and contributing to the economy.
The best way to shape change is to embrace it. Being at the forefront of innovation gives us the opportunity to influence it
Finally, we should think about the skills that young people will need to thrive in the world that we are creating. Despite a culture of almost constant change, our overall approach to education hasn’t changed that much from the model of 50 years ago. Research indicates that, while tasks are being automated, the “essentially human” parts of work are becoming more important. Soft skills, such as empathy, communication, and strategic decision-making, will become more valuable than ever. Empathy, communication and creativity will be the factors that distinguish us from our machine colleagues in the future.
The age of automation brings challenges, but also remarkable opportunities. If government, educators and industry collaborate effectively and take advantage of foresight, then we can look forward to embracing the next industrial revolution as much as we did the last.