“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 a world of driverless cars, he said, it’s possible these people will be displaced. “Is it really conceivable that we could train that many people in such a short amount of time, to do the new tasks and activities elsewhere in the economy, perhaps writing the code for these systems and machines?” In the long run, argued Susskind, there is no reason to think what remains will be enough to keep armies of people in well-paid employment.
(The chair added that the 3.5m truck drivers could all start country and western bands.)
Sabine Hauert, assistant professor of Robotics at the University of Bristol, was optimistic, “I think robots have the potential to improve the way we work, the way we live, and the way we explore new frontiers. 1.25m people die every year on the road. And I think autonomous cars have the potential to not only make us safer but make us greener and empower people who currently can’t drive around.”
The robotics community, she said, was working towards robots called “Cobots”— collaborative robots that work alongside humans. They can increase productivity, and generally that means an increase in the number of jobs. Productivity is going to be key. We’re going to have to feed 10bn people by 2050—and precision-agriculture is one way to hit those numbers.
She cited two examples being developed in her laboratory in Bristol: “We have a thousand coin-sized robots that we can deploy to do things like environmental monitoring.” She works with surgeons who are interested in how nanoparticles can improve the treatment of cancer.
Popular perception is distorted by media portrayals of robots in programmes such as Westworld, Humans and Black Mirror. We need, she concluded, to find a better way to communicate with the public.
Helen Dickinson, from the British Retail Consortium, quoted the author William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Retail might not be the first industry people think of when considering cutting-edge technology, she continued, but sector is undergoing a transformation. Almost 15 per cent of retail sales today are online. The industry is the largest UK private-sector employer: 3.2m people, one million of whom are under 24. And it is the industry that has got the highest proportion of people whose roles are at risk of automation. But while there will be fewer jobs in retail, “there is a real opportunity to ensure that the jobs that remain are better jobs.”
There are jobs being created that no one had ever thought of before: 100,000 people in retail are doing jobs like social media manager and digital marketeer. In the future the role of the physical store will be about the experience. The banal parts of jobs like checking the stockroom could be taken care of by technology.
Addressing wider productivity needs to be part of the government’s industrial strategy. “Can humans benefit from robots in the workplace?” Yes, she said, but government and industry need to deliberate carefully about the long-term consequences of their actions.