The big questions around automation
Updated 4th December 2017
Technology is evolving so fast that sometimes it's hard to comprehend the enormity of what's now possible. In just a few years, we've grown used to having a world of knowledge in the palm of our hand, instant connectivity with nearly anybody around the world, and the power to broadcast our thoughts to thousands of people via social media. It's pretty mind-blowing stuff, but what's coming next could be put even these innovations in the shade.
Technologies like AI, robotics and the Internet of Things are becoming so sophisticated that they're poised to replace many of the jobs currently done by humans, sparking a massive shift in how we work, earn money and live our lives. Think it sounds far-fetched? We'll let you decide. Here's the lowdown on some of the big questions around automation…#### Are jobs already being done by robots?
Much of the automation debate may be focused on the future, but thousands of jobs are already being replaced by machines. Take the ecommerce giant, Amazon, which uses 45,000 robots in its warehouses - all doing jobs that would previously have been carried out by people. Other examples include robo-advisors, an increasingly popular alternative to financial advisors, as well as advertising technology, which uses data and machine learning to place advertisements and even choose taglines – making many lower level ad roles obsolete.
How many jobs will be automated in the future?
A recent study by McKinsey estimated that as many as 800m jobs will be automated globally by 2030 – that's about 60% of jobs and around 30% of all activities! Another study by PwC predicted that 10 million UK workers could be replaced by machines in the next 15 years, with a staggering 30% of jobs potentially under threat.
Which jobs are most at risk?
Unlike previous technological and industrial revolutions, the difference now is that a wider variety of jobs are at risk, particularly white-collar professions, which haven't been impacted in the past. The jobs that are likely to go first are anything repetitive, routine and predictable, where minimal brain power is required. According to a study by Oxford University, that will include data entry keyers, telemarketers, insurance underwriters and tax preparers, all of which have a 99% chance of automation. But, perhaps less expected are those professions with around a 75% chance of being automated, including bar tenders, carpenters and opticians.
Won't we invent new jobs to replace them?
Many people refer to previous industrial revolutions, when new technology ultimately created more jobs than it replaced. Won't the same happen this time?
Well, yes and no. A study by research firm, Forrester, estimates that in the US, around 15m jobs will be created by automation and AI over the next decade – so that's promising. However, Forrester also accepts that this won't even come close to covering the jobs that will be eliminated, plus we'll also need to bear in mind the numerous challenges around upskilling people to carry out these new professions. McKinsey estimates that of the total 800m displaced globally by automation, between 75 and 375 million may need to switch roles and learn new skills, but admits that 'the transitions will be very challenging'.
Are any jobs safe from automation?
Of course, robots and AI are never going to be able to do everything. Some jobs will continue to require the human touch, plus people will always be needed to programme and oversee the machines. Any job which requires a lot of creativity and original thinking, such as an artist, novelist or scientist, is likely to be safe, as will those positions where complex personal relationships are involved. Oxford University predicts that the jobs least likely to be automated are things like recreational therapists, mental health workers and choreographers - so activities that require both a high level of knowledge and a level of human interaction that it would be difficult for a robot to replicate.
What are the implications of automation for society?
Nobody knows for sure, but if the predicted scenarios play out, then the economy and society could be unrecognisable in just a couple of decades. There are basically two ways of looking at it. The negative view is that, with so many jobs no longer required, a large chunk of society will end up without work, leading to an increasing divide between highly intelligent, skilled workers, and the rest who get left behind. Some are even predicting that automation on a global scale will lead to the "post-scarcity economy" - where money won't matter and all of our economies will totally collapse. Yikes.
On the flip side, some believe automation could usher in a better working world and higher living standards, by abolishing low-skilled and low-paid work, while supercharging productivity. In this scenario, people would be free to enjoy the fruits of the machines' labour, with more leisure time to pursue hobbies and spend with friends and family.
What is the solution?
For automation to truly benefit everybody, rather than just the lucky few, policies would have to be put in place to ensure it is implemented fairly. One popular suggestion is the idea of a Universal Basic Income, where everyone receives a minimum wage from the state – whether or not they are working - to spend how they wish. The TUC union has recently supported this idea, while Elon Musk also raised the issue at the World Government Summit earlier this year.
The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has also made some interesting suggestions including establishing a National Centre for AI and Robotics, that would encourage innovation, while aiding lifelong learning and career changes. It has also recommended that the tech community take a lead on drafting and signing up to ethical frameworks; something that Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft are already doing with an AI alliance set up last year.
How can you prepare?
AI and robotics have officially left the realms of science fiction, and it's time to take seriously how they could affect both individuals, organisations and society as a whole. So, if your job is on the at-risk list, it might be time to consider upskilling or retraining, to give yourself more career options - before it's too late. Ultimately, those who recognise that the world is changing, by embracing new technologies and taking steps to work alongside them, will be in the strongest position to reap the rewards in the years to come. For ideas on what your business can do to ensure its future, check out our blog on staying relevant in an AI world.
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