The last time robots threatened our jobs, there were riots.
The Napoleonic wars had taken their toll on Britain: food prices skyrocketed, taxes ballooned to fund the war effort, and labour-saving machinery had put textile workers out of jobs. Enter ‘Luddism’.
At night, the workers would meet secretly, on the moors, planning and practising for their attacks. They smashed their looms and razed mills to the ground, raging against their declining livelihoods.
The shift to using automated equipment threatened to oust the skilled workers making them obsolete. They attacked machines because of what they represented to the common worker: economic death.
We are a long way from the privations of the 19th century – yet today we share some of their concerns. As AI-driven automation radically changes the way we work, many people worry their own skills have a precipitous shelf-life.
There might be disagreement about whether automation will be ultimately good or bad, but change is already felt. Rapid technological advancement has led to the proliferation of AI-driven automation unevenly across sectors. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research reckons that without policy intervention, automation is likely to exacerbate existing inequality rather than improve it. Does the rise of the AI worker mean the dawn of a new pay gap?
What is clear is that we’re not really discussing this with any sense of urgency. We need to start doing so
Dr Matthew Fenech is an AI consultant with Future Advocacy, a think tank that looks at how it will impact people and businesses. Their work supports policies to maximise the benefits of AI and minimise potential risks.
Are the machines really coming for our jobs?
Dr Fenech explains that it’s more accurate to think of each job consisting of potentially automatable tasks that should be considered separately. Roles comprised of more easily-automated tasks are most at-risk, whereas those with less are more likely to change.
He adds that the McKinsey Global Institute, a consultancy that analyses economic trends defines automation risk as specific actions with easily anticipated changes. Using this definition, they estimate 60% of all occupations and 30% of their constituent tasks are automatable.
He says one of the main challenges is the uneven impact of automation, across a number of dimensions, including employment sector, geography, age group, gender, educational attainment and socio-economic group. Most studies have found that jobs done men with lower levels of education are most imperilled over the next 10 to 20 years. What’s given less attention, however, is the disparity in impact across geography.
A Future Advocacy study found that despite the risk to jobs across GB (excluding NI) being 30%, this risk varies widely across the country, meaning a more significant impact as a result of automation in parts of the country. In places like Oxford and Cambridge, Fenech adds, the majority of new jobs are likely to be high-skilled professional jobs – jobs that are more resilient to further automation. But in the North, things are more troubling.
Geographical differences in the impacts of automation (Picture: Future Advocacy)Blackburn, Sunderland and Bradford are likely to create more low-skilled, further at-risk jobs over the same period. ‘These cities could suffer a double whammy, worsening the North-South divide’.
What’s more, is that while automation has boosted economic growth since the 70s, the share passed on to workers has decreased. The benefits are being hoarded. Without intervention, this concentration of wealth is likely to worsen.
Labour share of total income: 1970 and 2007 (Graphic: Metro.co.uk. Source: Brookings Institution)Dr Fenech says we need government intervention to mitigate the impact on the hardest hit: ‘They could become trapped in a state of precarious employment, shifting from one low-skilled, highly automatable job to another.’
For digital optimists, the appeal of automation lies in what it represents – a future in which humanity has engineered its way out of its social ills. Given pop cultural portrayals of slick machines and post-scarcity economies, we can readily conjure a dreamy vision of less work and more leisure benefitting society at large.
The reality at present is less rosy. The embrace of AI-driven automation is not happening in manageable increments. ‘Old’ jobs are being subsumed to automation faster than new jobs and are being created, and far quicker than humans can acquire the skills to do them. Automation is impacting people unevenly, and risks deepening the existing social divides.
If we continue to race ahead without government intervention, faster than people and markets can adapt, we risk concentrating the wealth in an even more troubling ratio than we see today. Instead of obliterating the pay gap, our uncritical adoption of automation without safeguarding those most at-risk may cause it to expand so rapidly that it becomes impossible to traverse.
So what can be done to decrease the risk of worsening inequality?
Dr Fenech says we need to better understand how impacts will be felt across demographics. He believes governments must start commissioning research.
‘Once we know a bit more about who is likely to be most impacted, we can target interventions,’ he explains.
We need to start having a conversation now, as a society, about what a world with less work for all might look like
These might included supporting businesses to upskill employees, as well as financial and psychological support to those affected. At the society level, financial aid like a Universal Basic Income is a potential alleviation – though the jury is still out on how useful it is in this context, Dr Fenech adds.
What’s vitally important, he says, is education reform. This will help us maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks of AI adoption.
It’s no use concentrating our efforts on STEM subjects and coding skills to future-proof our workforce – ‘there are already algorithms capable of coding new algorithms’.
He stresses the importance of lifelong learning, focusing on abilities that are likely to be the preserve of humans for longer, like interpersonal skills and creativity. ‘This will require a culture shift,’ he says.
Right now, he adds that the importance of caring professions like nursing and social care are overlooked. Revaluing these jobs would be good for two reasons: they offer long-term employment security, and demand will increase with an ageing population.
To protect those most at risk, and to prepare society for the radical changes ahead, Dr Fenech stresses that governments must take action. Society needs support for initiatives that train underrepresented sectors like women and minorities in AI development and deployment.
He states: ‘A tech community that is more representative of society at large may well help reduce the chances that minorities are disproportionately affected.’
More: The Future Of Everything
Businesses also have a role to play: they must lead the way in ‘responsible automation’.
‘It is only by involving workers and local communities in decisions around automation that employers can avoid the risks of ‘techlash’,’ says Dr Fenech.
‘We need to start having a conversation now, as a society, about what a world with less work for all might look like. We want to avoid a dystopian future where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few owners of capital.’
Preparing for an uncertain future that is changing at an unprecedented speed is no easy task, but the growing body of evidence must spur immediate action.
The most significant changes may seem far off, but the quality of life and the economic wellbeing of generations to come depends on the policies we put in place now.
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
Over eight weeks, we’re taking one of the big issues – work, government, health, the web, sex, evolution, travel and people – on each week and breaking them down twice a day (published early each weekday morning).
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: email@example.com or Alex.Hudson@metro.co.uk
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