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AI and robots will 'create political instability' until humans find new occupations

The belief that advances in technology will create more jobs than they replace may no longer hold true

“Almost one-third of UK jobs could be done by robots in 10 years’ time.”

Warnings of this kind are often softened by the suggestion that new and better occupations will replace defunct jobs. But such is the pace of technological advancement, this is no longer guaranteed.

PwC is the latest to predict the decimation of work carried out by people due to rapid advances in technology. It said in a report that by the 2030s, about 30% of jobs – more than 10 million – performed by people will be at risk of being automated through technology such as software robots.

And, according to PwC, those with the lowest education levels face the biggest risk of losing their jobs.

“Around 30% of existing UK jobs could be at risk of automation by the early 2030s, with the most exposed sectors including retail and wholesale, transport and storage, and manufacturing,” the report said. “Less educated workers face the highest risks of automation.”

However, the percentage of jobs at risk in the UK was lower than in the US (38%) and Germany (35%), it said.

And PwC is not alone in its predictions. Earlier this month, financial services management consultancy Opimas declared that globally, 230,000 jobs in the capital markets sector alone would become defunct because of the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

PwC, like many other number-crunchers, has inserted the caveat that efficiency and productivity gains will create new jobs, but adds: “The government needs to respond by reshaping education and vocational training to help workers adapt to this fast-evolving technological world.”

Like any significant cultural shift, the challenges facing humankind and its relationship with work have not escaped the attentions of the artistic world.

An event discussing the future of work, hosted by Konica Minolta, was addressed by Douglas Coupland, author of the novel Generation X: Tales for an accelerated culture, which tells the stories of a group of people in the generation born between the early 1960s and early 1980s – known as Generation X.

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Coupland told Computer Weekly: “People always say ‘don’t worry, we will invent new job categories’ and I think in the past this has been more or less the case, but we are dealing with algorithmic technologies which have no historical or ontological precedence.”

AI, robots and the internet of things (IoT) will have an unprecedented impact on what people do, he said.

“Maybe there will be new job categories created but maybe it will take a long time for that to happen, but in the meantime you will get AI replacing millions of jobs and people will ask themselves what their jobs will be.”

Coupland, an artist as well as an author, said his fear was that there is “too much, too quick”.

“We are at this hyper-accelerated pace now,” he said. “We are going to lose jobs faster than we create them and during that different zone it is going to be very politically unstable, and I hope governments have a plan B.”

This is a challenge that governments, academics and business leaders are all grappling with. The recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, discussed the risks posed by technology to jobs and political stability.

Problems highlighted by the WEF’s Global Risks 2017 report included the fact that, as a result of AI and other disruptive technologies, long-term jobs were giving way to self-employment in the “gig” economy, leaving individuals to shoulder more responsibility for the costs of unemployment, sickness and old age.

Unless there is a concerted effort from governments and the private sector, this will put pressure on economies and may lead to social unrest, said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Group. “Without proper governance and reskilling of workers, technology will eliminate jobs faster than it creates them,” she said. “Governments can no longer provide historic levels of social protection, and an anti-establishment narrative has gained traction, with new political leaders blaming globalisation for society’s challenges.”

Huge social disruption

Governments, academics and businesses should be planning for huge social disruption because there are many real-life examples across the world of AI replacing people in the workplace. These range from education to transportation.

For example, by the end of this year, children in the Gulf Cooperation Council group of countries will have robot assistants in their classrooms. Teachers will be supported by physical robots connected to cloud-based software. These will be used to access information and provide students with answers to their questions.

In the transportation sector, Singapore was the first country in the world to launch self-driving taxis through nuTonomy, developer of state-of-the art software for autonomous cars.

Meanwhile, taxi drivers in Dubai face competition from above. The UAE city’s Roads and Transport Authority has revealed that plans to unveil passenger-flying drones are in the final stages, with the initiative expected to launch in July this year.

Robots are now being trusted to support customers when it comes to their finances. Japanese insurance company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance has replaced 34 members of its claims assessment team with IBM Watson.

And in the UK public sector, the London borough of Enfield is using a software robot to provide customer services so that it can redirect resources. The IPSoft platform, known as Amelia, has an understanding of the semantics of language and can learn to solve business process queries much like a human. It can read 300 pages in 30 seconds and learn through experience by observing the interactions between human agents and customers.

Next Steps

AI at work still a possibility 

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