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Is An Automated Future A Threat Or Mankind’s Greatest Ever Opportunity?

automation

Automation will inevitably continue to eat up current jobs and change the kind of employment opportunities, or lack thereof, available to the UK’ working age population over coming years. That there will be upheaval and victims is certain. But will the ultimate outcome of this development be one that is positive and represents a huge opportunity for us all to live better, more fulfilling lives? Or will it lead us into a dystopia of mass unemployment and

For decades now machines, robotics, software and other technologies that either increase the efficiency or fully automate tasks that were previously manually carried out by salaried humans have been changing the nature of global workforces and the economy. Agriculture was among the first sectors to see machines radically change human labour input. Modern tractors, combine harvester, crop dusters and the rest mean a single worker, aided by technology, can now produce the same output that once required tens or even hundreds of individuals.

The manufacturing sector was next as production lines were updated with the introduction of robotics able to do many of the jobs that were once manual. More sophisticated robots running on more sophisticated software have gradually but constantly broadened the range of what can be done by technology with less, or no, human input.  

Recent leaps forward in AI, accelerated by the advent of Cloud computing and more powerful processors are now, however, accelerating the trajectory towards automation. Repetitive rules-based white collar as well as blue collar jobs are now being taken over by technology.

Economic shifts that displace or eliminate jobs en masse have always led to outcry and gnashing of teeth. When much of the UK’s heavy industry and manufacturing became unsustainable in the 1980s and early 90s and moved to take advantage of cheaper labour forces elsewhere in the world the result was certainly sometimes brutal. Regions where these industries were the main employers suffered terribly under the weight of mass unemployment.

While individuals who were unable to adapt their skill set to new employment opportunities may not have ever fully recovered, time has healed and economies adapted. The chart below shows the UK’s unemployment figures from 1980 onwards.

Source: TradingEconomics.com

The undeniable evidence is that increasing automation has not led to mass unemployment. Rather, today’s UK sees lower rates of unemployment than at any other time in modern history. Economies, and the workforce have adapted to the employment landscape changes brought about by globalisation and automation. Few would argue that, overall, living standards have also improved in the UK over the past 30-40 years despite the doom and gloom of the post-industrial landscape.

How Will Technology And Automation Shape The UK’s Employment Landscape Over The Next 20 Years?

Of course, while what has happened in the past can offer clues as to how people and the UK and world economies will continue to adapt to changes to the labour market, there is no guarantee the future will play out along the same pattern. The changes brought about by technology-driven automation coming over the next couple of decades could be even more pronounced that the shifting seas of 1980s Britain.

A recent study conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 1.5 million people are at risk of losing their current jobs to automation over the coming years. That figure is derived from a 2017 analysis of 20 million jobs based in the UK. 7.4% were defined as at ‘high risk’ of being replaced in coming years.

And given the pace of technological change today, which is many times faster than at any other previous point in history, the trend towards automation can be expected to accelerate. As reported by Forbes Magazine, AI expert Scott Pelly recently stated he believed up to 40% of today’s jobs could be automated within 15 years.

But will the automation of the jobs that can be automated, a category that will continue to expand, be an overall positive for standards of living in the UK? Will it open up a new world of opportunity for more people to explore different, more creative and more satisfying jobs and pursuits? Or will it lead to mass unemployment and a brutal, destructive stratification of society into a small working/earning class and a much larger class of the unemployed?

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure and there will likely be sections of the current UK workforce negatively impacted but the evidence that is available suggests that, despite the protests and worries, the overall effect doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, it could be hugely positive.

As time moves on and technology becomes ever more sophisticated higher level jobs could be affected. Even those that, for now, look impossible to outsource to technology. But at least the first wave of today’s jobs that are likely to lost to automation over coming years, both blue and white collar, will be those that can be classified by adjectives such as ‘repetitive’, ‘unskilled’ and ‘mundane’.

The chart above, created by the BBC using statistics from the ONS study, suggests that the jobs in the UK most at risk are those such as waiters, shelf fillers and data entry positions. Without dismissing the economic importance of such jobs and employment opportunity the provide for low-skilled workers, will anyone really miss them?

Or perhaps that’s not the right question to ask. A better one is perhaps what are the jobs that the new economy will create to replace them? And will they offer a better standard of living and prove more fulfilling for those who occupy them?

It would be simplistic to say that the automation of low-skilled, repetitive jobs will mean that the workers currently occupying them will be freed up to put their time and abilities to more creative occupations. For some that may well be the case. But not everyone has the abilities and talents to do creative jobs well. For those who don’t, what does the future hold?

How the process of re-skilling and re-employing the workers in jobs lost to automation will decide how the transition to a new, automated economy is managed will determine how painful the transition is. There will almost undoubtedly be new employment opportunities. At least, there always have been. Most of today’s jobs didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago.

The most likely outcome is that in many cases it is particular tasks, not jobs that new technology will replace. These will be replaced by new tasks, many of which will revolve around that technology. Futurist speaker Thomas Frey suggests several occupations he believes could be common by 2040. These include robot maintenance teams, drone command and control crews and 3D printing fabricators.

Automation Should Be an Opportunity

Every technological revolution in human history, from agriculture replacing the hunter and gatherer economy, to the industrial revolution replacing the agrarian economy, has had its pain points. But it is hard to deny, especially over the past decade, that we’ve come out of the other end in a better place.

The more tasks are made more efficient by technology the more time we’ve had to do new things. That time and those new things are what has given us clean, running water, electricity, medicine and the list goes on. Is there any real reason to believe that the next stage of our economy and way of living will not also free up more time for new, improved developments to again improve our standards of living?




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