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Automation and Jobs

I have been thinking – I do it from time to time – about automation and its effect on my generation and those to come. Why? Well I have been reading a book entitled The Rise of Robots (2015) by Martin Ford. I should not have been reading it at night time, not least because it fascinates, challenges and concerns in equal measure, as its pages, mostly filled with doom and gloom (but a very interesting and worthwhile read all the same), talk about the end of employment as we know it (and possibly without the need for the qualifier!). Then, today, I noticed an article from the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, headed “Automation and the Workforce”.

Ford’s book is full of ideas and statistics and easily moves between the US to the UK in terms of facts, stories and concepts. The article on the other hand focuses exclusively on the potential effects on the UK workforce, providing as it does an overview of how technologies are being developed and deployed with the “potential implications for employment, skills, education and inequality in the coming decades“.

It was IBM that first coined the phrase “Computers can only do what they are programmed to do”. Well, that might have been true in the 1960’s, but not any more. In the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s we came to see and understand that computers could help reduce the need for human beings to carry out repetitive jobs. It is true that computers did replace a number of  such roles, but new industries sprang up (eg gaming) requiring new ways of working and the consequent requirement for people. Historically, as the article observes, productivity has increased with the introduction of automation and the availability of employment, certainly in the UK, has not obviously suffered, in fact it has increased, but at what cost?

Technology has moved on (according to Moore’s law, computer power doubles every 2 years), and now, as Ford points out, it is not repetitive roles that are in the sights of the computer programmers, but try replacing the word “repetitive” with “predictable” as Ford suggests, or consider a computer programme’s ability to scan and absorb hundreds of documents in a few seconds, then there is a real impact on the human ability to stay at least one step ahead. To date, robots have to a degree displaced human workers, but that has apparently only lead to a change in the type of work available, but for how long can this continue and what can and should be done?

There are particular concerns to guard against, including a widening pay gap and other inequalities and we should not march blind into a future of mass unemployment where wealth is ever increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few – it helps none of us in the long run!

Ford concludes in his final chapter that “there is no question that the economy will remain heavily dependent on human labour for the foreseeable future“. That might be right, and good news for our children, but businesses in adapting need to be mindful of the human impact and look to keep employees trained (with new skills if necessary) to keep abreast of technological developments and aligned with economic changes.

Clearly there are dangers ahead, but in the meantime, let’s be upbeat, keep employees motivated and incentivised and use technology for the good of all.