Machines are challenging human supremacy in a growing number of fields. AI can now identify cancers more accurately than trained pathologists, algorithms can detect fraudulent financial transactions in a matter of milliseconds, and robotic systems can pick and pack goods with increasing precision in logistics. Every month brings a new breakthrough.
Will these machines lead to the decimation of our labour market? It is almost four years since the University of Oxford predicted that 35 percent of UK roles could be made obsolete by new technologies, yet fears of automation have only become more acute. This report questions whether these concerns are justified, drawing on a combination of fresh analysis of government datasets, a survey of UK business leaders, and interviews with employers from across different industries.
Our first conclusion is that AI and robotics are more likely to alter jobs than to eliminate them. Despite impressive advances in machine capability, many tasks remain outside of their scope, particularly those demanding manual dexterity and deeper forms of creativity and communication. Moreover, automation tends to be task-based rather than job-based, allowing workers to pivot into new roles should machines encroach on their turf. No single device can wholly substitute for retail assistants, care workers, hotel receptionists or building labourers.
There are also macro effects to consider. While it is easy to overstate the dynamics of creative destruction, new jobs will undoubtedly be formed just as others peter out. The number of programmers in the UK has grown by 40 percent since 2011, while the ranks of IT directors have doubled over the same period. More subtly, rising productivity caused by new machines could lead to a lowering of prices, thereby freeing consumers to divert their demand elsewhere in the economy.
A more important question, then, is how AI and robotics will alter the substance of the many jobs that remain in place. On the one hand, new technology could deskill occupations, reduce worker bargaining power and wages, and bring forth an unhealthy degree of workplace surveillance. Yet the same technology could equally raise productivity levels, make UK businesses more competitive, open up the door to higher wages, and phase out dull, dangerous and dirty tasks.
Much will come down to the choices we make as a society. However, as our report argues, these choices will be largely irrelevant unless the UK accelerates its take-up of AI and robotics. An RSA/YouGov poll of UK business leaders finds that just 14 percent are currently investing in this technology or plan to in the near future. 20 percent want to invest but say it will take a significant amount of time to do so, while 39 percent believe the technology is too costly or not yet proven.
Some observers may breathe a sigh of relief at these low adoption rates, believing that it will save workers unnecessary pain and disruption. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the status quo is a largely low-skilled and low-paid labour market that offers too few people the chance to flourish at work. Average wages are still below their pre-crisis level and productivity rates are among the lowest in the G7.
The report concludes that AI and robotics could put the UK on the path to a better world of work, so long as we can implement automation on our own terms. This requires interventions across the technology lifecycle – from the point at which machines are developed to the time they are deployed in the workplace. Among our recommendations are for employers to co-create automation strategies with their employees, for tech companies to take a lead on drafting and signing up to ethical frameworks, and for the government to establish personal training accounts that could aid lifelong learning.
Most importantly, we need to begin a conversation about who owns the machines and how to distribute their proceeds more fairly. While for most of human history our problems have revolved around issues of material scarcity, the new machine age promises to bring about an era of unprecedented abundance – more than enough to meet everyone’s needs. The question is whether we have the political courage and conviction to share the wealth wisely.
Download the report: The Age of Automation (PDF, 1MB)
Read the report online: The Age of Automation (on Medium)
This report is an important step in moving beyond fear of the potential future to concrete proposals for how society can best prepare itself for an evolving workplace. This future will be full of opportunities to improve work for many in the UK and could improve our overall productivity. High quality training of the UK workforce is one way we must meet this challenge and Google is contributing to this need by providing five hours of digital skills coaching for everyone in the UK.
Katie O’Donovan, Public Policy Manager, Google UK