Thursday, 28 December 2017

Watch out, the robots are coming

Brexiters often complain that migrants are taking British jobs and bringing down wages, especially in the low-skills sector.

But the real threat isn’t from migrants – it’s from machines and robots that are predicted to replace almost half of all British jobs within twenty years.

The rise of the ‘robot economy’ risks social disruption by widening the gap between rich and poor in Britain, according to a study published this week by the IPPR think tank.

The IPPR has calculated that around 44% of all jobs in the UK economy could be automated. That equates to the jobs of almost 14 million people, who together earn about £290 billion.

Although the study doesn’t predict how long this will take, it refers to research in the USA which estimates that the changes could occur over the next ten to twenty years.

US tech billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, said that Artificial Intelligence was the “scariest problem” facing human civilisation and “our biggest existential threat”.

He predicts robots will be able to do everything better than humans.

Don’t think foreign migrants should be picking our strawberries?

Just wait ‘til foreign robots get their gleaming mechanical mitts on them, working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at a mere fraction of the minimum wage, and never needing holidays or sick pay.

And it’s not just unskilled jobs at risk.

Accountants have an almost 100% chance of being replaced by clever robots in suits – meaning their days are truly numbered.

But according to the Bank of England’s Chief Economist (human, for now), it’s the low-paid jobs that are most vulnerable to replacement by electronics.

The Bank's Andy Haldane warned that a new generation of increasingly creative robots could replace “at risk” jobs over the next 20 years.

“Occupations most at risk include administrative, clerical and production tasks,” he said, noting that “those most at risk from automation tend, on average, to have the lowest wage”.

A report by the Bank of America predicted that UK employees currently earning £30,000 a year or less were five times more likely to be replaced by artificial intelligence than those earning over £100,000 a year.

Another study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that robot bar staff were more efficient and less partial than humans.

(Although the study didn’t calculate whether robots could handle their drink any better than people).

It was in 1933 that John Maynard Keynes predicted widespread technological unemployment, “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”

Until now, however, it's claimed that modern technology has created more jobs than it's displaced.

But can that trend continue?

If half of all British jobs can be replaced by robots within 20 years, it’s my prediction that most jobs currently done by humans (British or foreign) will at some stage in the future be done by artificial equivalents.

This isn’t a pipe dream (or nightmare). It’s a reality, slowly and insidiously taking place increasingly year on year.

And never mind half of all jobs within twenty years.

Boston Consulting Group predicts that a quarter of all jobs will be replaced by computers and robots within ten years. That’s soon.

The current debate on the impact of migration will surely pale into insignificance compared to the imminent and increasing replacement of human workers with digital ones.

That’s the issue that politicians do not appear to be adequately addressing, even though most humans at some stage in the future will likely face redundancy, displacement or under employment because of automation.

What will humans do when there’s no work to be done?

On the one hand, it could herald a new golden age of human leisure and blissfulness, with all dangerous, laborious and boring jobs delegated to a new led-flashing automated labour force that will become our servants and life-helpers.

On the other hand, the loss of purposeful job roles for humans could see us enter an era of massive unemployment and wistfulness, with only the wealthy owners of robots having enriched lives, and the rest subordinated to becoming the bored slaves, and not the masters, of the new robotic age.

Of course, the answer will come through politics, because it’s only politics that will decide how the ‘brave new world’ will function and who will, or will not, benefit from it.

(Those who claim politics don't interest or affect them won’t win that argument with a robot).

This involves a fundamental question of what should be the role of humans when humans may have no role.

This is an issue we should be earnestly discussing now, and not when tomorrow’s world arrives, by which time it will be too late.

The same, of course, applies to Brexit and all other matters affecting our futures.

‘Shut up, get over it’ is not the smartest human response, is it?

► The EU runs the world’s largest civilian research programme in robotics. Called SPARC, it was launched in 2014. It has up to €700 million of investments allocated by the European Commission and €2.1 billion in private funds. In addition, the Commission is investing more than one billion euros in the ‘Factories of the Future’ public-private partnership.

The Commission announced last month, ‘Artificial intelligence and robotics are key elements of the ongoing digital transformation. The digital single market will allow these technologies to flourish and the European economy and European society to draw greater benefit from them.’

Of course, Britain after Brexit won’t fully benefit from the EU’s emerging digital single market. 
Other articles by Jon Danzig:


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