Robots will soon be moving in on the professionsby Tom Watson / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward a young Bostonian emerges from a state of suspended animation in the year 2000 and is startled to find the inequalities of his own era banished. A Utopian 21st-century America has abolished money, private enterprise and poverty—every industry is owned and managed for the benefit of all.
There are glimpses of our present in Bellamy’s vision of the future. It featured a form of credit card and giant warehouses which dispatch goods direct to the home. There is even an eerily prescient streaming service, a sort of Spotify which pipes music into living rooms. But this country of musical telephones, elegant libraries and communal dining halls is run by bureaucrats on strict utilitarian lines. In this land of plenty, workers retire at 45 after 24 years of industrial service, and then look forward to four decades of rest and recreation.
Bellamy’s optimism now seems hopelessly anachronistic, but—though he was writing when Victoria sat on the throne—he was prescient in asking the right questions about the future, particularly those about the nature of work. It is a question that remains every bit as relevant today, and political parties that fail to answer it could find themselves doomed. That’s why I’ve set up a Commission on the Future of Work, to bring together analysts and stakeholders. The aim is for it to report by next Autumn, identifying how things are changing, and figuring out how policy should respond.
In a new era of technological change—driven by automation and artificial intelligence—old assumptions about the world of work will be upended, with profound implications for all of us. Many statistical claims are heard: Deloitte suggests 35 per cent of UK jobs are at risk from automation, some other studies put that as low as 10 per cent, others as high as 50.
This is not just about drones that deliver goods to our doorsteps or the advent of driverless cars, although these innovations alone could revolutionise haulage and put HGV drivers out of work. The changes will affect blue and white collar jobs alike. When my daughter was born less than a decade ago, I was convinced she’d spend her school years learning to code, but coding is now being done by algorithms. Citibank estimates that a quarter of Wall Street jobs will be done by computers by 2020. Will ambitious parents still be pushing their children towards medical school when AI can diagnose illnesses and robots can dispense drugs? Computers can already screen for some cancers more effectively than human radiologists. That’s good news for all of us—except the radiologists.