Technological innovation is rapidly changing the face of the workplace as we know it. From the office to the factory to the retail outlet, job-reducing technological advancements are sweeping through the UK at an accelerated rate. The workplaces of a decade ago – with their clunky landline telephones, huge desktop computers and grey filing cabinets – already seem archaic to us in 2015. The next decade will see changes more radical than the switch from desktops to mobile devices. Alarmism aside, we can reasonably predict that sooner rather than later robotics will sweep through UK workplaces.
A widely-respected joint report from Deloitte and Oxford University has recently predicted that 10 million jobs in Britain could be appropriated by computers and robots: making 1 in 3 roles obsolete. Across the pond, the Oxford University study has indicated that as much as 47% of the US labour force could be replaced by technological innovations within 20 years. Whilst this may sound unimaginable, it’s well worth remembering that administrative roles such as clerks, sales assistants and secretaries have reduced by 40% since 2001.
The change has already begun. Five years ago, Kokoro (a Japanese robot manufacturer) created a humanoid robot receptionist for use in offices. If you happen to be in Japan, you might also come across “Pepper” – Softbank’s friendly robot which also doubles up as a store assistant/salesperson. Meanwhile in America, you could find the “Botlr” robot delivering your hotel room service instead of a human bellhop. Let’s not forget that self-driving cars have already been launched in the UK this year. Robots are eliminating jobs all around us, and the cloud of controversy surrounding robotics is growing stormier by the day.
Technology causing controversy around job-reduction is no new phenomenon: it’s been around since the industrial revolution. The English workers of the 1800s destroyed mechanical looms in a bid to keep their jobs, and despite a lack of similar machinery mutilation the UK saw extremely mixed reactions to the introduction of self-service checkouts. As much as we frequently rely on robotics within our working lives, we fear its invasion. The question is not whether robots will soon be a regular component within the UK workplace, it is whether we are right to fear it.
On the surface, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For a one-off payment (which would generally be around the same mark as an employee’s annual salary), a business can now purchase a robot which will work tirelessly for 24 hours a day, requiring no breaks, no health insurance and no remuneration packages. These automation robots are increasingly advanced, and will quickly change the face of the manufacturing and service industries, disrupting the workplace by eliminating the need for millions of human workers. These job-terminators will undoubtedly put people out of work, and quickly.
But is it all doom, gloom and the onset of an early Armageddon? Probably not. Firstly and most obviously, automation will undoubtedly boost productivity, increase output and lower industry costs all across the UK. Some lines of thought argue that this will lead to a future in which work is no longer necessary, and we are each paid a government stipend to guarantee a living wage. This isn’t out of the question, but it’s not the most probable outcome.
Rather than eliminating the need to work, robotics in the workplace will sharpen our skills and make us work smarter, not harder. Think about it. In a workplace where all manual labour has been assumed by robots, the human workforce will be free to pursue higher-level and more creative jobs. The ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ will finally allow us to explore intellectual development endeavours and find greater job satisfaction. Gone will be the menial 40 year desk jobs that most people in the developed world are stuck with until retirement, as will be blue collar ‘grunt’ work. Robots will be working, certainly, but we will be working alongside them in roles which require us to use our emotional intelligence and multi-functional skillsets.
There’s also every indication that robots will create new industries and drive jobs growth. According to a report by KPMG, driverless cars alone could create 320,000 jobs in the UK, with 25,000 in automotive manufacturing. Our wave of new automation robots will need building, developing, maintaining and managing. Then of course, there’ll be new and currently inconceivable jobs that will come off the back of a robot-driven workplace. In 1790, some 93% of the US population were farmers, and by 1990 that figure had plummeted to just 2%. If this is anything to go by, the robotics revolution will create future jobs as unimaginable to us as nuclear physicists and C# developers were to the farmers of 1790.
Automation is coming soon to a workplace near you. The age of robots is undoubtedly upon us, but it’s safe to say that we can expect a world of R2-D2s rather than Terminators.