The rise of robots (is going to be just fine)

The robots are coming. Life as we know it in the UK is about to change. According to a recent study by PwC (external link), more than 10 million UK workers have a high probability of being replaced by robots within the next 15 years, with 30% of all UK jobs potentially impacted by automation by the mid-2030s.

The sector under greatest short-term risk is financial services (external link), where autonomous algorithms could make financial analysis and assessments faster and much more efficient. But the sector under highest long-term risk is retail and wholesale – one of the largest sources of employment in the country. As much as 44% of all retail and wholesale jobs could be impacted by the mid-2030s.

Indeed, the shift from a manual to an automated workforce seems to have already started with the launch of Amazon Go (external link) – an autonomous grocery store that removes the need for human cashiers in a bid to make convenience stores… well, even more convenient.

Should we be worried? Maybe not. Despite boasting ‘the world’s most advanced shopping technology’, Amazon Go still requires human employees to perform a variety of tasks. Stacking store shelves, processing customer queries, solving technical problems – they all require a human touch. And although Amazon increased the number of robots working in their warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000 (external link) between 2014 and 2017, the rate at which they hire workers didn’t change at all.

The key question, therefore, isn’t ‘how many jobs will be destroyed by automation?’ but ‘how many jobs will be created?’

Xavier Chelladurai, Vice President Automation at technology consulting firm Capgemini, argues that the rise of the robots will actually lead to more jobs, not fewer. ‘There is a concern and fear among employees regarding automation, for obvious reasons. However, there is a real opportunity up for grabs created by automation: high-profile jobs. This opportunity has already reached the market and it’s only going to expand.’

Robots in the driving seat

According to Gartner (external link), the future looks bright: in 2020, AI will generate far more jobs than it eliminates – 2.3 million and 1.8 million, respectively – while 2025 will see the net number of new jobs reach two million. Automated technologies such as AI, robotics and other forms of ‘smart automation’, could also contribute up to 10% to UK GDP by 2030 (external link).

‘The potential benefits of automation are too great to allow doubts about technology, cost and skills to stand in the way,’ says Lee Beardmore, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Capgemini. ‘It’s time for businesses to take the next step.’

But why step when you can leap? In November 2017, the UK government announced a tranche of funding for tech innovations, chief among them AI and driverless cars, with a goal of getting autonomous cars on the roads by 2021. The investment enabled the first use of autonomous vehicles on UK public roads, with a recent £2.5 million trial headed up by Innovate UK (external link)in Oxfordshire, while supermarkets such as Ocado (external link) are already using driverless vehicles to deliver products to customers in the UK.

Other autonomous vehicles could benefit the economy too. Just last month, an autonomous submarine, the Remus 3000 (external link), discovered the holy grail of shipwrecks with up to £12 billion in treasure. Thanks to its autonomous tech, the Remus 3000 can descend four miles below the surface – depths that would be fatal for human divers.

It’s no surprise then that the transport sector shows massive potential for automation. But as with retail and wholesale, the short-term impact will be minimal. PwC predicts (external link) the transport sector will witness significant impact as driverless vehicles roll out at scale across economies – but, again, this won’t occur until the mid-2030s.

Let’s train for our future

So how can business prepare for the automated age? According to Beardmore, the answer is simple: educate. ‘Many organisations may be aware of the potential benefits of automation,’ he says. ‘But they lack knowledge – not just of the technology, but also of the knowledge and experience necessary to implement it. The good news is not just that proof-of-concept implementations needn’t be expensive, but that acquiring the requisite expertise can also be achieved cost-effectively.’

On-the-job training, degree apprenticeships and external coaching in ‘softer’ skills such as problem solving and creativity are essential. According to PwC’s research (external link), people with low levels of education (e.g. GCSE level equivalent or lower) and medium levels of education are more likely to be in jobs that will become automated compared with those with higher levels of education, such as university graduates.

Businesses, trade unions and governments therefore need to help people adapt to these changing technologies.

Fear today – gone tomorrow

It’s important to remember that fear of automation is nothing new – least of all in the UK. Over four centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent for an automated knitting device, claiming that she had ‘too much regard for the poor women and unprotected young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting to forward an invention which, by depriving them of employment, would reduce them to starvation’.

Over 200 years later, the same thing happened again – this time with the Luddites. Formed in 1811 as a protest movement, the Luddites claimed that that the mechanisation of the British textile industry would be disastrous for the national economy and deprive countless skilled workers of essential employment.

But in spite of Queen Elizabeth I’s trepidation – and the Luddites’ best efforts – automated weaving technology created more jobs. Many more, in fact. According to James Bessen, author of Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, England had over four times as many factory weavers by the end of the 19th century than it did in 1830. Not only that, it resulted in huge wealth for the British economy, created thousands of jobs in other sectors and brought about the first Industrial Revolution – the benefits of which we still enjoy today.

So maybe the rise of the robots won’t be so bad after all.