In the same way that machinery of the industrial revolution permanently changed the way we work, we’re about to witness a similar transformation as technology from Industry 4.0 arrives in our offices and our homes. As automation gains a foothold, fears of mass job loss are rising, but much like significant events of the past, there will continue to be flexibility in the job market; when jobs are lost they will be replaced, others will be created, utilising a different set of skills.
Research from Oxford University predicts that within the next decade, 35% of the UK labour market will be at high risk of losing their jobs. To maintain the livelihood of millions, it falls to the authorities and corporate leaders to prepare the public for these changes, prioritising skills and functions that cannot be replicated by machines. In order to unlock the huge benefits of the machine age, careful legislation and widespread education are crucial.
A study showed that 88% of Americans are not worried about losing their jobs, even when made aware of research from Oxford University stating that 47% of US jobs are vulnerable to automation.
This complacency is a concern. While 64% of UK respondents understand the threat of automation, too many underestimate the risk posed to their jobs and industries. Just 15% felt threatened by robots and automation, with 38% believing that the biggest threat to their job is the struggling economy. What individuals are seemingly failing to recognise is that struggling businesses are more likely to turn to automation in an attempt to reduce costs for simple tasks, than have the burden of employing a human to do it.
Customer service is one of the industries most at risk, with 40-50% of tasks performed by customer service agents, falling into the “most likely to be automated in the next decade” category according to consumers. Basic processes such as updating addresses, payment cards and passwords are more efficiently accomplished by bots, and LivePerson research has proven that 55% of customers even prefer this method when correctly implemented.
Other industries are also at risk. Truck and taxi drivers, cashiers, security guards and retail clerks are all roles at risk of being automated. Unfortunately, it is within these sectors that the population is least aware of the technological advances and least likely to have access to the most recent technological developments. These groups are also more likely to be in a lower income bracket, without the time to re-train or reassess their options.
With AI on the rise, legislation must adapt accordingly and facilitate the mass-retraining required to prepare for automation. The recent formation of the UK’s AI Select Committee is a promising first step, but authorities must ensure that they are preparing for the machine age on every front.
It is also important that governments regulate the kind of technology that may be developed. For example, using AI as a weapon should be illegal. In this case, laws can be adapted from Isaac Asimov’s ‘three laws of robotics’ introduced in 1942. These laws state that: robots may not injure a human; a robot must obey orders; and a robot must protect its own existence, as long as this doesn’t conflict with the two previous laws.
Businesses need to be encouraged to create ‘automation-resistant’ platforms and business models that rely on human input and labour. These could include business models that rely on creativity and empathy for example.
To incentivise this, the UK government should consider investing in start-ups and companies that will create these platforms. We need a Marshall Plan. Big, aggressive and, most importantly, pre-emptive. The first step focussed on workers, and future workers, in industries that are going to be most affected by AI. Opportunities need to be created for those individuals most at risk. Through subsidised re-training and education, focused on industries that are likely to be around in the long-term, the evolving workforce can develop skills to prevent them being left behind as new tech continues to evolve.