Help I’m being replaced by a robot!

haydn.thompson Friday January 26, 2018

I have just read that in the UK more than half of jobs will be automated by the early 2030s. This is an interesting story for me as I remember being told at school in the 1970’s that I need to consider leisure activities as it was likely that by the time I was working everybody would only be working 3 days a week. Sadly, this prediction was wrong and so I wonder how true the latest predictions are?

The story is not new. In the UK the Luddites feared machines which led to violent opposition to the industrial revolution in the early 1800s. So will the 4th Industrial Revolution, with the rise of robots, artificial intelligence and related CPS technologies be equivalently painful? It is true that more and more workers, industry leaders and governments are getting concerned and estimates of the impact of automation on jobs by analysts such as PwC - automation will take 40 per cent of US jobs by 2030, and the Bank of England - 15 million jobs in the UK may go (half the current working population!) are of course catching the headlines.

So is automation and AI really a threat or an opportunity? The major hope, as was highlighted to me in the 1970s, is that robots will do the boring tasks to leave us to focus on the more interesting challenges. Indeed looking at all the functionality I use today I am far more efficient and I do not waste as much time writing letters, sending faxes, buying things, booking flights, hotels, etc. So my life has improved immeasurably through technology and I am still extremely busy. The real threat occurs if the technology is monopolised by a few companies who become dominant and take all the profits. There are, however, more positive noises coming from society about automation. ARM found 61% of people questioned thought that AI and more automation will improve society rather than destroy it. There is also some evidence that the introduction of AI is creating new jobs within companies, mainly with the rush in companies to exploit AI for new functionalities.

So should we be embracing AI and robots to improve our lives? Certainly at a national level adopting AI and Robotics is on many national agendas in order to be more competitive so the revolution is coming whether we like it or not. The question is really what can be done to ease the transition for society to increased automation. Bill Gates has advocated that robots should pay taxes in order to replace the lost income from workers who would normally pay taxes. This seems like a good thing, particularly if we move to a single universal income as is being proposed in some countries. On a more negative note Elon Musk has suggested that AI may lead to world war three much like a Terminator film but perhaps we are getting confused here between fiction and reality.

Based on my experience from the 1970s (a time when we were encouraged to build nuclear shelters and were trained for a 4 minute warning) I think we will still have jobs to do but they will be different jobs. It may well be that we work more from home in the future. Of course this will have social implications – the annual Christmas party is likely to suffer - but I think we have enough imagination to come up with new things to do with more free time if we are offered it. So what does the future hold? I asked Alexa but she did not seem to know ….