Talk about robots and artificial intelligence and all kind of images of Terminators running riot may pop into your head. But the approaching surge of automation is not a threat; it offers a wealth of opportunities to change the way we work, increase productivity and move into new sectors.
In The Times last week, Clare Foges, David Cameron’s former speechwriter, described automation as “one of the biggest issues we face” and criticised a utopian mind-set in the tech community that everything would be fine.
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson displayed the same reticence to an audience in Weymouth recently, quoting a Deloitte report that 11 million jobs were under threat from automation in the next decade. It’s worth noting the report is titled “From brawn to brains”, as the shift we’re witnessing is not removing jobs, but replacing them.
To be fair to Watson, he’s concerned with an “hourglass economy” of inequality, supposedly forming around the digital revolution. The fact that Instagram only employed 13 people when Facebook purchased it in 2012 is proof of this apparently. It’s true that blue-collar jobs, like manufacturing, face the most immediate threat, but white-collar work is not safe either – just look at accountancy software and personal assistant apps.
Disruptive technology has the ability to fundamentally reshape our economy for the better. There are, and always will be, cases where a few get rich, but this is not necessarily at the expense of the many. Watson goes on to say that "Uber, Facebook, Google and the other successful tech platforms have brought immense gains to the lives of millions of people, but they are part of an emerging 'winner takes all' economy.” Heaven forbid companies that spot a gap in the market might profit from that, especially ones like Google and Facebook which offer their services for free! And all credit to Instagram for reaching a stage where they earned a 10-figure sale price with only a Baker’s Dozen of employees.
It may be a cliché to say that in the middle of adversity lies opportunity, but in this case it really does. The labour market is moving away from manual work to a knowledge-based economy – from brawn to brains. As Deloitte points out, “this technology-driven shift has already created four times more jobs than have been lost, and it has brought considerable additional value to the UK’s economy. It also accentuates the importance of generating and retaining the right skills in the workforce.”
As Foges rightly says: 25 years ago we couldn’t have dreamt of jobs in social media, virtual reality or fintech being as prevalent as they are today. So who’s to say what the future will look like? New jobs will replace those forced into obsolescence: cabs supplant carriages, and are overtaken by Uber themselves.
This isn’t a bad thing. You only need to look at car manufacturing, which, having gone pretty much fully automated, has increased its productivity by 35 per cent since 2010. This allows employees, whose work by definition was less productive, to retrain and extract more value from their efforts. Some may be left by the wayside, which is when government should perhaps step in to offer a hand up.
And there are legitimate questions to ask on how prepared we are for this shift. Kids going through school now will be the captains of industry in 30 years’ time, and while there are valiant attempts to teach schoolchildren how to code, there’s a feeling of unease when lessons on smartboards are still seen as cutting edge.
We’re going through a technological revolution to rival anything that went before it. But this is an opportunity, not a challenge. By embracing technology and innovation, we can shift our focus from what worked last century to what will work for the next hundred years. When the robots take over, it won’t be the end of the world, but it may be the start of a new one.
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