While there may be disagreements on whether AI is something to worry about or not, there is general agreement that it will change the workforce. What is a potential concern is how quickly these changes will appear. Anyone who has been watching Inside the Factory1 can see how few people are needed on production lines that are largely automated: a single person with the title “manager” whose team consists entirely of robots. It wasn’t too long ago that these factories would have been full of manual labour.
The nature of our workforce has changed. It’s been changing constantly – the AI revolution is no different in that respect. We just need to be aware of the speed and scale of potential change and ensure that we are giving everyone the opportunity to be skilled in the roles that will form part of our future. There is an inevitability about this. Just as globalisation made it easy for companies to outsource work to cheaper locations (and even easier with micro contract sites) AI will make it cheaper and easier for companies to do tasks so it will be adopted. Tasks that aren’t interesting enough or wide market enough or even too difficult right now to be automated will still need human workers. Everything else will slowly be lost “to the robots”.
I expect that my daughter will never learn to drive. With the UK government announcing a ban to the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 2. I strongly suspect that self-driving electric vehicles will be very prevalent before then3. While the UK ban is on domestic vehicles, I think there will be a natural adoption of autonomous vehicles in the haulage industry – avoiding the problem of long drives for fatiguing humans. There will still be demand for people who can drive for a while as not all countries will go driverless at the same time.
AI is already encroaching into other skilled areas – classification of medical imagery, which used to take years of training humans, can be deployed at scale for fast and accurate diagnosis. If your job involves doing the same thing day in and day out then yes, you should be worried.
John Snowden has suggested4 a “Robot Tax” which would penalise companies using robots over humans as its workforce, and the money from which could directly support a citizens’ income at a higher level than the current National or Living wages. While the idea seems reasonable on the surface, I don’t believe that it could work. With globalisation, this would encourage companies with automated workforces to move to countries that do not have this tax, decreasing revenues from other sources and adding to unemployment from the humans they would otherwise have employed. Similarly, just like road tax isn’t ring fenced for our roads, fuel duty isn’t kept for environmental projects and national insurance isn’t directly fed into the NHS, any revenue generated would be fed into the total pot of income for the government of the day, who would decide how to allocate it. If there’s anything I have learned from 20 years of engagement in politics, it’s that there is never enough money and changing the balance does not have the simplistic predicted effects.
I dislike the idea of taxing innovation and progress to support working practises established in the last century and I do not believe it will work. So how else can the prospect of mass unemployment be countered? Education is always the first step. Young people are naturally inquisitive, creative and ask “why” without the burden of how things have always been. These are the entrepreneurs of the future and will find the new opportunities around AI that others haven’t thought about yet. We need to teach them about these technologies in greater depth. But we also need to encourage creativity alongside logic. There are some huge problems on the horizon in terms of providing food and energy for the world and I don’t see jobs diminishing in these areas in the next 50 years. Those early Mars colonists will need to be highly skilled in multiple areas, including functioning without the aid of AI should it be required. With robot manufacture becoming more prevalent, hand crafted items will be considered more and more luxurious as this century progresses. Maximising energy production for the growing needs of the world while minimising resource consumption will be a huge challenge. Finally, conservation will continue to be an issue. I see AI and robotics assisting in these pursuits, but we’re going to need to put a lot of human effort towards them as well.
The best way to protect yourself from the rise of the robots is to find something you are passionate about and get very good at it, with enough general skills that you can be adaptable. Even if you don’t end up in STEM, be aware of the changes coming.
- On iplayer, but only available in the UK. ↩
- Which seems like a long way away, but it’s only a couple of decades and will come around very quickly. ↩
- Indeed if they didn’t have to co-exist with human controlled vehicles then I think that they would come far sooner. ↩
- Mensa Magazine July 2017, not available online ↩