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September 20, 2017

Robots, automation to raise wages & productivity – but it will cost four million British jobs

15% of the current workforce could fall to automation.

By Ellie Burns

The latest figure to instill fear over the impending robot uprising has been revealed in a YouGov poll for the Royal Society of Arts, with the huge figure of four million being touted as the number of private sector jobs to be stolen by robots in the next decade.

The four million jobs taken by automation and robots equates to 15% of the current workforce in the British private sector, with jobs in finance and accounting, media, marketing, advertising, transport and distribution the sectors most likely to be automated in the next ten years.

However, although the number is a big one, it is not quite so big as other estimates. As interest continues to boom in regard to automation and robots, previous estimates have seen the Bank of England predict that 15 million jobs were at risk, while the University of Oxford estimated that 35% of jobs would be obsolete thanks to technology.

The latest poll of business leaders by RSA is, however, much more optimistic despite the four million number looming large. Instead of eliminating jobs, the RSA is championing the thinking that AI will cause a shift in jobs, saying:

“Our first conclusion is that AI and robotics are more likely to alter jobs than to eliminate them. Despite impressive advances in machine capability, many tasks remain outside of their scope, particularly those demanding manual dexterity and deeper forms of creativity and communication. Moreover, automation tends to be task-based rather than job-based, allowing workers to pivot into new roles should machines encroach on their turf. No single device can wholly substitute for retail assistants, care workers, hotel receptionists or building labourers.”

AI

Assuaging the fears of automation, the RSA argues that the adoption of such technology could “raise productivity levels, make UK businesses more competitive, open up the door to higher wages, and phase out dull, dangerous and dirty tasks.”

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However, these gains will rest on one key factor, RSA argues – the choices that we make as a society.  The report argues, however, that these choices will remain irrelevant if the UK does not increase its take-up of AI and robotics. The poll found that just 14% are currently investing in AI and similar technologies or plan to in the near future. 20% want to invest but say it will take a significant amount of time to do so, while 39% believe the technology is too costly or not yet proven.

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Although the report touches on concerns that AI and robotics may deepen economic inequality, further entrench demographic biases and create ethical and moral dilemmas, the RSA ultimately concludes that “AI and robotics could put the UK on the path to a better world of work.”

“This requires interventions across the technology lifecycle – from the point at which machines are developed to the time they are deployed in the workplace,” said the RSA.

“Among our recommendations are for employers to co-create automation strategies with their employees, for tech companies to take a lead on drafting and signing up to ethical frameworks, and for the government to establish personal training accounts that could aid lifelong learning.”

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