The robots are coming and taking our jobs
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well under way and gathering momentum. It will change how we live and how we work, how the economy works and how we are governed.
It is expected that more than 65% of children entering primary school this year will end up working in completely new jobs that currently do not exist when they enter the workplace 15 years from now. Our schools and universities face the unprecedented challenge of preparing young people for a future they cannot currently predict.
To date the looming changes rarely get mentioned in public debate when they do they tend to be dismissed as the stuff of sci fi. When Professor Stephen Hawkings, for example, warned that if the development of Artificial Intelligence were mismanagement that could threaten the very existence of mankind this was given the mad scientist treatment by the tabloids.
The problem is that we tend to be so preoccupied by present challenges that we do not have the time or the energy to look beyond them. This applies not just to individuals but even more so to organisations and the implications for charities in the coming age of change is profound.
Big business is very much on the case. The World Economic Forum devoted its conference at Davros this year to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and has produced a whole raft of papers predicting the future of work.
It is in the workplace that the most obvious effects will be felt. McKinsey Global Institute states that half of today’s work activities will be performed by robots by 2055. The OECD is more cautious but agrees that half of all jobs will fundamentally change.
Neither of these formulae factor in the unknown impact of advances in artificial intelligence which may well create scenarios where most jobs might be better performed by machines which have been designed to be more intelligent than we are.
The most obvious impact of this will be a sharp rise in unemployment affecting many industries. Transport is an obvious one. There are plans to introduce driverless cars into two UK cities by 2020: London and Milton Keynes. As the technology advances it will have impacts on haulage drivers, bus drivers, taxi companies, driving instructors anyone who currently makes a living driving.
Of course new jobs will be created in software and engineering to service the vehicles, but these require different skill sets and there will be much fewer of them.
Manufacturing jobs are already disappearing as humans are replaced by robots, this will accelerate. Financial services will also be affected – many analytical and accounting functions are better suited to automation and so-called roboadvisers are already under trial.
All this will be attractive to employers: after all you don’t have to pay salaries to machines that once up and running cost relatively little to service and maintain. And they don’t go on strike or suffer from illness or stress and many will operate 24 hours a day every day with no tea or lunch breaks.
Delegates at Davros will have been salivating at the prospect. The World Economic forum predicts a net loss of more than 15 million jobs in 15 major economies by 2020 alone. It is already predicting future work trends.
Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice University in Texas, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science this: “We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”
How this is likely to play out in the medium term is that technology will destroy low-skilled jobs, replacing them with a much smaller number of high skilled jobs. Those with low skill levels will have to retrain and often move home to compete for work. This will have massive implications for life time learning. Many people may have to re-train several times during their working life.
Shareholder will do well, at least initially but the income gap will grow. This poses interesting questions for the way we run our economy – a point not lost on the Labour Party which has produced this paper on the issue.
It is not only socialists who are profoundly concerned about the implications of the wholesale replacement of workers with machines. To put it crudely what is the point in being able to mass produce smart phones, TVs and robotic cars if so many people will not be able to afford them?
Capitalism itself is challenged by the change. Unfettered free markets will implode if the only people who benefit from them are the owners of workerless industries. They will have lost their consumers.
Employers will have to play their part in funding training and the trend of cutting corporate taxes will have to be reversed. Pressures to introduce different ownership models such as social enterprises and co-operatives are increasing. So too is the nationalisation of corporations. Labour is explicit about that in its paper. This is not a yearning to return to the 1970s but an attempt to ensure, in its words, that the industrial revolution works for the many and not the few.
Over and above that there is an urgent need to re-think both how we work in the future and how we deal with those who are not in work. Backing for a Universal Basic Income is growing worldwide. An interesting experiment is currently taking place in Finland. The idea is that if everyone was guaranteed a modest income for life it would help them to re-train when not in work, to take part time work without losing benefits and to survive in periods when they have no work at all.
There are also implications for how we work: whether there should be shorter working days and more job sharing, maximising employment.
All this has profound implications for the Voluntary Sector. The social enterprise model is much more fit for purpose in the world we are entering because any surpluses are re-invested in to the organisation rather than handed out to shareholders. Those organisations who are involved in training and development should be looking at what services they can start to develop and over and above this the sector needs to think about how it might create more opportunities for productive volunteering. The Third Sector should be front and centre of the growing debate which cannot be left to the captains of industry at Davros.
There are cynics who point out that thinkers have been predicting a world with no workers for more than a century: Oscar Wilde did so in 1891 and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s said that we’d all be able to work a 15 hour week thanks to mechanisation. They argue that there always will be enough work. And they might prove to be correct. Yet premature past predictions from a different age are scant evidence to counter the growing consensus that the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is already underway will have repercussions every bit as profound as the first.
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