When The World Economic Forum (WEF) released The Future of Jobs report in January 2016, it caused a stir amongst both companies and individuals with its controversial claims about the impact of technology on the future of work. The report claimed that within the next 15-20 years, we will see technologies “blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.” WEF founder Klaus Schwab, highlighted that these changes will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.
This theme of resentment towards what has become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution continued throughout 2016. In early December 2016, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announced that “up to 15million of the current jobs in Britain – almost half of the 31.8million workforce – could be replaced by robots over the coming years as livelihoods were ‘mercilessly destroyed’ by the technological revolution.”
Just this month, PwC released their UK Economic Outlook report which stated that around 30% of existing UK jobs could be at potential risk of automation by 2030. The sectors most likely to be affected included retail, wholesale, transport and storage and manufacturing, with lower skilled workers facing the highest risks of automation.
Just like the WEF report and Mark Carney’s speech, the PwC report is a reminder that automation is the greatest social challenge of our time, and that we need to be having a serious nationwide conversation about it.
Striking the right robot / human balance
PwC’s report acknowledges that automation technology will boost productivity, wealth and spending. This economic boost is likely to create new job opportunities in service sectors that are less at risk of automation, but it also highlights automation’s potential to widen the inequality gap as robots increasingly replace less skilled workers.
It is important that we ensure that the gains from automation are distributed more widely across society to prevent the inequality gap from widening. We have already reached a point in some areas where doing business is not a case of human or machine, but rather human and machine. The Government needs to respond to our new, collaborative workforce by reshaping education and vocational training to help workers adapt to the fast evolving work environment.
Employers will need to take responsibility to ensure that they develop new ways of making the human-robot partnership work within their organisation, and optimise their decisions about whether a human or a robot employee is best suited to the task in hand.
Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution
We are already deep into a digital transformation, and we need to reflect this in the ways that we live and work. The business models of the past are becoming ever more irrelevant – there is no longer a place for legacy thinking in our digital age.
The industrial revolutions of the past have taught us that as traditional jobs disappear, we need to innovate to ensure that people of all ages are sufficiently equipped to enter into the new employment landscape. We are going to need innovative thinking to create an economy in this new world that works for the people.
It is obvious that for the UK to forge and maintain a lead in the robotics and AI world we need a serious quantity of engineers and technologists. Yet the skillsets needed to remain competitive in an automated world are also the fundamental skills around our humanity and creativity, as well as our ability to be collaborative and resilient. Developing skills around the richness of this intelligence is where we need to be setting our sights.
If we compare the jobs that existed one hundred years ago with the jobs of the present, the difference is astounding. Customer Happiness Heros, Website Developers, User Experience Designers, Scrum Masters, Chief Evangelists, Data Scientists and Social Media Managers are all a product of our times. While hundreds of traditional roles have disappeared over the years, they have been replaced with new titles to suit our digital age. Likewise, we can expect new job titles to emerge in relation to automation, such as Drone Pilot, Productivity Counsellor, Crowdfunding Consultant, Collaboration Specialist, Data Privacy Expert or Robot Instructor.
While the economic reports released over the course of the last year raise awareness of the direction that the future of work is heading in, the focus on job loss statistics somewhat misses the point. Instead investing our efforts into collating information on the number of jobs that will be lost to automation, we need to redistribute automation and AI research funding allocated to universities to schools to better prepare the next generation.
Humans will always be required within an operation in order to programme robots and deliver the elements of the service that a robot is not equipped to handle. We need to view the human-robot workforce as a collaboration, not a competition, and continue to innovate new ways to make this partnership work for us. In Britain and beyond, it’s high time we began to look upon the rise of automation as an opportunity, not as an Armageddon.