“This is a topic that I’ve certainly thought about a lot,” said Timandra Harkness, chairing a British Academy debate in London on 22nd March. Will humans be helped—or replaced—by robots in the workplace? A solicitor she spoke to recently said he felt sorry for steelworkers losing their jobs to robots. She broke the bad news that there exists a bot for contesting parking tickets.
The key question was: “What are the benefits, and to whom will they accrue?” And what can we do to affect how things play out?
Professor Judy Wiseman, who teaches sociology at the LSE, argued we already benefit from automation. “From self-service cash machines, and check-outs in supermarkets, to smartphones and Google.” Not to mention Siri and Echo. But we’re constantly being told, with “Frankensteinian relish,” that robots are a threat. Wiseman believes this technological revolution will not be so different from previous ones. Remember, there were dire predictions before the shift from typewriters to computers.
“In my view the most efficient future, the one we should aim for… is one in which machines and humans work together.” Nurses use more sophisticated technologies than before, but their social skills, their ability to communicate, are still crucial.
We spend a lot of time thinking about Silicon Valley, and not enough thinking about the “casual, insecure, low-paid workforce that powers the likes of Google, Amazon and Twitter—the armies of coders, daily cleaners, paid raters, porn-filterers, ad-checkers and sub-contractors—are not thought of when we think of the new kinds of work.” She added that she was “very optimistic” about the jobs that will be created as a result of the digital economy.” The key is pulling the right policy levers to ensure good, secure jobs, rather than poorly paid ones.
Daniel Susskind, an economics fellow at Oxford, said that usually we think of professions we are familiar with—lawyers and doctors, teachers and nurses—and ask whether they might be replaced by a robot. “It’s misleading because it encourages us to think of the work that these different people do as monolithic, indivisible lumps of stuff.” What technology usually does is not replace jobs but “change often in very significant ways the tasks and activities that different people do in their jobs.”
Robots don’t necessarily benefit workers though. Take the 3.5m people who work in the trucking industry in America. In…