The robots are coming!

Two headlines on the BBC website recently caught my eye – “How to robot-proof your career” and “Which jobs will robots steal first?”

The second headline uses the media’s clickbait approach of using a strong word like ‘steal’ – this raises the question of whether robots have already got to the level of intelligence to understand the concept of taking something from someone without their permission, which they patently haven’t.

What is important around the robotisation of the workforce is not whether this means that your job may be removed from the list that humans are needed to fulfil, but what does this mean to your position within the community as a whole?

There has been a continued evolution of work toward increasing automation.  As an example, in 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard demonstrated the first automated loom, using a series of punch cards to create patterns in woven fabric.  This enabled much faster, automated weaving to take place with a higher level of consistency in the final product.  In a similar vein, James Hargreaves had developed the Spinning Jenny, enabling multiple spools of yarn to be created by a single person at the same time.

In the modern workplace, we no longer rely on manual telephone exchanges; we have self-service checkouts at supermarkets; we use the web to order goods which are picked by autonomous vehicles from massive warehouses, packed onto (manually driven) lorries that are automatically tracked via GPS devices.

The march of automation is nothing new – all that robotics is doing is moving this along to the next stage.

The impact could be massive.  Many jobs could go: think of the ones that have already gone – secretarial pools, many clerical jobs, the majority of bank tellers, etc). It is relatively easy to automate out a lot of functions currently carried out by humans.  For example, those warehouses mentioned earlier – many now employ only a handful of people as robots take over in the stocking and destocking of goods.  Supertankers have crews of a dozen or less, as the majority of actions are all automated.  Web sites are using robotic avatars to engage with customers.  Some companies are already implementing robotic receptionists.

Scary?  Only if we cling to the concept that a job is necessary.

If robotics could replace 10% of the UK workforce, it would put another 3 million people out of a job.  That is not really a stretch target – if we really wanted to, it would be possible to replace a lot more workers than that through advanced automation and the use of artificial intelligence.

But we all need a job to live, surely?  The economy cannot afford to maintain a mass of 3 million people on benefits – can it?

Why not?  If automation improves productivity – which is the only real reason to use it – then the overall economy improves.  The robots are not paid a wage (although they do need paying for and then maintaining), so those organisations that automate the most will increase productivity fastest.  Moving the government’s approach away from targeting ‘full employment’ to ‘full automation’ would create a booming economy – one which can then afford to support a nation of people who are not employed in the traditional sense.

At an economic level, to be globally competitive, a country’s output has to be cheaper or more niche than another country’s.  If the UK remains dependent on manual labour, then they have to be more productive than other countries or accept lower wages. If the UK moves to automated labour, then the removal of the labour costs allows us to be more competitive – there is a great deal more control over selling prices, as margins will be higher.

This does not mean that we just create a nation of more couch potatoes – no, what we need to create is a nation of people who can all choose what they would like to do, whether this be something more artistic or something which is vocational.  Encouragement would be required so that people did not just stew in a position of not knowing or caring what they do.  There will always be people who are altruistic leaders: these people can galvanise others into doing things. These people can then galvanise others – and so on in a continuous virtuous cascade.

The country could have more people carrying out voluntary work to help those who are in the most need – the lonely old; the infirm who cannot get about; the underprivileged who have not had the right chances to date.

People could choose to work together – maybe building affordable houses as a collective; maybe working more on an exchange basis of things like swapping vegetables they have grown themselves for beer that someone else has brewed, or skills in the use of technology for a hand-made wooden bowl.

People could choose to go for an increased amount of lifetime learning – they will have more free time, so can get deeply into areas that interest them.  They can do more activities – sport, walking, sailing, whatever – so creating a healthier population.

Overall, people could become more creative and less task-driven.  There would be less looking down on the unemployed – they could be very productive in their own way.

Sure, there would be a lot of jobs that did still require humans.  With more people available and with many parts of the job automated to avoid wasted time, some of these jobs could become shared positions – still paying the same salary as a full-time position – freeing up time for the workers and providing a standard of living higher than those who are not ’employed’ under any standard contract.

We should not fight the coming of the robots – we should embrace it.  We do need to plan for the future – how do we deal with the first sets of people whose jobs are replaced so as to create an environment where they can become productive in the greater scheme of things, and how we deal with those whose jobs are not replaced.  These required workers may feel left out – so will need to be paid accordingly and, through approaches such as job sharing, provided with more time to themselves to do what they want to do.

This still leaves us with the one major issue – how will the robots view us when they become self-aware?  I think I’ll leave that issue for another day…