According to the ONS, 1.5 million jobs are in danger of being in some way automated. But the ONS report does not tell the full story. The truth is, technology could have devastating economic consequences, or it could create the happiest workforce in history. Technology could destroy jobs, but it could put an end to tedium in the workplace.
Roughly 200 years ago, the Luddites went around smashing up machines, so great was their fear that technology would destroy jobs; today we have academics and now esteemed compilers of statistics, such as the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) warning about how jobs are under threat from automation. But are they right?
“Technology,” says the one-time chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov “is the reason why people are alive to complain about technology.”
Yet, complain we do. Roughly 200 years ago, the Luddites went around smashing up machines, so great was their fear; today we have academics and now esteemed compilers of statistics, such as the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) warning about how jobs are under threat from automation. But are they right? Or is technology simply meaning we are living longer, so that we can spend even more time complaining about it?
“The first industrial revolution began around 1760, with the Spinning Jenny,” says Guy Kirkwood, chief evangelist at Robotics Process Automation (RPA) company UiPath “prior to that, 98% of the population worked the land, now it is just 2%, but that does not mean that there was 98% unemployment.”
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“We think we have automated 10-20% of processes using traditional technologies,” says Neeti Mehta, SVP, Brand and Culture Architect, at RPA company, Automation Anywhere, “with that we have increased life spans by 25 to 30 years, we have been to the moon. With RPA and AI, we think we can automate another 40% to 50%, think what you can do for humankind if we can free them up from that repetition.”
Or as Kirkwood said: “Robots will become net job promoters, they will create more jobs than they eliminate.”
Part of the problem with studies proclaiming job losses is that they tend to focus on tasks and not the overall activities a worker might carry out. Take the classic study, from Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, from Oxford University’s Future of Employment report.
So sure, some tasks might become the preserve of automation, but that does not mean the jobs will.
In fairness to the ONS, it did say “Around 1.5 million jobs in England are at high risk of some of their duties and tasks being automated in the future.”
Does that mean we are worrying over nothing? That automation and job creation are like a horse and carriage, which supposedly go together like love and marriage?
The lesson of history
According to economist James Bessen, in the early days of the industrial revolution, while productivity rose, wages did not rise in tandem. At first, each factory owner was quite proprietary about the technology they used. They would train workers to use it, but the skills the workers gained were not transferable, as a result, the employer had a kind of monopoly in the local labour market. It was not until, many decades later, that technology, supported by trade associations, became more homogeneous, and a labourer at one factory who had acquired certain skills found they could work for someone else and apply the same skills. At that point, wages rose. But the impact on the factory owner was still positive; rising wages created a more buoyant economy. There might have been ‘trouble at mill’, but not because of a lack of demand for products.
Or take another example, according to British army records, average height, a proxy for health, declined in the mid-years of the 19th century, before rising.
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In short, it took time before the benefits of automation filtered through to the labour market.
As Neeti Mehta said: “As companies transition their workforce, and make it bot enabled, we must look at this ahead of time. When we look at history and look at every industrial revolution, we always dealt with it but in the aftermath, now we have that history behind us, why not deal with it as we are transitioning?”
In other words, learn the lesson of history, and apply it in advance of any social upheaval that may result from automation.
Tasks not jobs
On the other hand, according to research; carried out by Dr Chris Brauer, and his team, at the Institute of Management Studies, at Goldsmiths University, University of London, and produced on behalf of Automation Anywhere, 58% of work activities, and 30% of tasks can be automated by robots, but only 5% of jobs.
Or, as Guy Kirkwood put it, technologies like RPA are not about “replacing jobs, rather they free people up to do more fun activities.”
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“If you take out the mundane; if you take out the boring; and if you take out the stuff that you can automate, you’re left with the things computers can’t do: being creative, being empathetic and being entrepreneurial — all of these are much more fun.”
He cites a customer of UiPath, who said. “The mood music has changed, our people are happier, and we now measure the service in terms of compliments rather than complaints.”
Or, as Neeti Mehta said: “People weren’t put on Earth to transfer data from one system to another, but that is what so many of us do. Nobody wants to fill in invoices manually, or reconcile invoices manually using eyesight, instead, we want to create better products, innovate or have a four-day work-week.”
The future of jobs
The ONS produces statistics; it does not speculate on what jobs that currently don’t yet exist, or are rare, will become popular.
It is certainly the case that some jobs will be destroyed by technology. Taxi drivers are not looking forward to the age of autonomous cars.
Other jobs will be created
Cognizant has produced a report, 21 More Jobs of the Future, Euan Davis, European Lead, at Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work said that the report “predicts that roles such as a cyber-attack agent or juvenile cybercrime rehabilitation counsellor will emerge in response to new types of warfare. Alternatively, positions such as voice UX designer will help individuals curate their perfect voice assistant, while machine personality designers will develop a unique character for digital products or services.”
So is it fear mongering?
John Everhard, Director at Pegasystems, said that “headlines that lambast workplace automation are merely counterproductive. Rather than instilling fear in the youth of today via research that criticises AI, we need to promote the use of the technology in the workplace so that young people are more aware of its benefits and uses when they enter the workforce.”
Euan Davis said: “The rapid evolution of working practices has resulted in skills resembling mobile apps, requiring frequent upgrades to stay relevant. Ultimately, the AI revolution will create as many, if not more jobs than it takes away. However, as the world of work continues to evolve based on new technologies, humans must increasingly evolve their skill sets to stay relevant and work in harmony with technologies, to ensure their jobs are not automated away.
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Guy Kirkwood, Chief Evangelist, at RPA company UiPath: “One of the big myths of automation is that it replaces jobs, it doesn’t. Most organisations go into automation because they want to reduce head count, that’s what they base their business case on and they are all wrong, that doesn’t happen.”
Ethics by design
But the transition may not be simple. How many former taxi drivers train as data scientists?
These are problems that vex some. At a recent Automation Anywhere, event, Dr Chris Brauer, talked about ethics by design. How organisations must build ethical considerations into their practices as they implement innovation, not after.
Neeti Mehta said: “That there is a commercial benefit as well as a social benefit to care about ethics.
“If you are not able to take your best resource, which is humans, you have lost.
“History tells us you have to deal with these issues eventually; it is better to deal with it at the beginning.”
Guy Kirkwood focuses on how innovation can improve working lives. “In Japan the average Japanese employee works 60 hours a week.” And in the land of the rising sun, there is a word for ‘working to death; Karōshi. If Kirkwood is right, it is not jobs that will be destroyed by technology, it is Karōshi.