almost 3 years ago by Lauren Fonseca

Will Automation Really Destroy our Jobs?


The so-called fourth industrial revolution, it would seem, is ever closer to becoming a reality. Companies who have long placed innovation at the forefront of their strategy are slowly publicising their aims to move arms of their operations into more automated processes, driven by Artificial Intelligence.

Recently taxi firm Addison Lee has announced its plans to introduce self-driving cars to its fleet in London by 2021. They have partnered with Oxbotica, the self-driving car pioneers in Britain, who have begun the process of mapping more than 250,000 miles of roads through London.

Uber, too, have already announced their plans with Toyota to create their own fleet of self-driving cars – although this was tragically set back earlier this year, when one of their autonomous vehicles was involved in a fatal collision.

Likewise, other cities have even more ambitious plans to automate the taxi industry, with Tokyo at the forefront. The city aims to have a full autonomously driven service in place in time for the 2020 Olympics.

It has been only three years since a fully autonomous car was allowed to drive on a public road anywhere in the world, but with both the incredible pace of and investment in the development of technology being what it is, the reality of a new world of transport possibilities approaches ever more quickly.

Beyond the private hire industry, artificial intelligence-driven automation is in full force. The medical profession is already benefitting from AI as a faster and more accurate diagnoses of patients, particularly in identifying cancer. This allows in turn for faster and more accurate treatment.

Uber, again, are investing in food delivery drones; it was found recently that they to be in use as soon as 2021, thanks to a job advert Uber posted and then quickly removed searching for a drone expert. Likewise, Amazon have been investing for years in perfecting drone delivery.

In this, the technology is already full functional. The logistics of commercial drones, however, are a huge challenge - flying drones into and over peoples’ properties brings with it alone swaths of legislative red tape to contend with. The benefits on the other hand, could be mighty, with drone shipping offering both huge saving costs in comparison to traditional shipping costs and the ability to get packages to customers faster than ever. Prime Air (Amazon’s drone delivery service) promises customers will receive their packages in 30 minutes or less.

The benefits of automation are plentiful – Artificial Intelligence offers speed and accuracy that humans cannot, as well as erasing the requirement for basic needs such as sleep and rest. AI can work around the clock. However, for all that innovation promises to make our lives easier and businesses more productive, automation also carries with it an age-old concern: by replacing typically human jobs, much like driving a van or analysing an x-ray, with robots, what happens to our jobs?

Are we doomed to a future of collective unemployment?

Probably not. Experts have yet to agree on what they foresee to be the future impact, but most agree that much as with all the industrial revolutions before, the pain will be in having to change jobs, rather than lose them.

PwC published a report in July arguing that AI would in fact create, if not as many jobs as it destroys, slightly more. It predicts 7.2 million jobs created over a 7 million jobs displaced, estimating that around 20% of all jobs would become automated and that no sector will be unaffected by the change.

The report predicts that in the UK, by mid-2030’s, 30% of all jobs could have the potential to be automated across industry sectors, with sectors such as Education and Health, requiring human care and softer skills, being the least affected. Transport, unsurprisingly, is seen as one of the sectors likely to be impacted most. However, they believe that by this time, workers and education will have adapted to prepare workers to be able to take on jobs requiring higher skill, particularly in the technology space.

Beyond this, experts predict that AI could see the average number of working hours reduce, as workers are provided with tools to increase productivity and cut down on the number of clerical or simple but time intensive tasks they currently carry out in their roles.

They predict that this increase in productivity could result in a rise in real incomes across sectors. Additionally, the already large number of vacancies in the healthcare and social work sector and in education could be filled by displaced workers, offering a solution to a problem that exists today.

Not everyone is quite so optimistic – Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has warned that “large swathes” of the UK workforce will face unemployment as smart automation begins to displace jobs. He has been criticised, however, for not taking into account the current high numbers of vacancies across the health and social care and employment sectors, for instance, or speaking of the numbers of jobs automation could potentially create.

After all, if the digital revolution has been happening since the dawn of smart phones, it’s difficult to believe that further smart automation can truly have any more of a dramatic impact than society has already seen. John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, comments “In the long run, AI, robotics and related technologies should not only make a significant contribution to UK GDP of up to 10%, but should also generate enough new jobs to broadly offset the potential job losses associated with automation.”

How far off are we from this? Despite PwC’s predictions of full automation by 2030, many critics are careful to point out that for autonomous cars, for instance, progress has been a lot slower than originally anticipated.

Elon Musk predicted in 2015 that we would see a fully autonomous Tesla by 2018. Although there are plans from multiple businesses anticipating self-driving taxis and cars without steering wheels for as early as next year, there’s evidence to say that this might be somewhat optimistic.

A growing concern has arisen amongst AI experts that it may yet be years before self-driving cars are reliable enough to avoid accidents and in particular, injury or loss of life to their passengers.

The cause for concern is a simple one: AI is more reliable than a human, quicker at performing simple and repetitive tasks by far and has no off switch. What is struggles with, however, is navigating around human chaos – humans on the road are by their nature far more unpredictable, and so these self-trained systems may take many years yet until they’ve experienced enough to reliably be viewed as safe in a way that’s commercially acceptable.

This delay, given the multi-million investments companies all over the world have put into self-driving vehicles in the anticipation that the payoff will be imminent, could be disastrous.  

That’s not to say all is lost – over the past ten years alone, technology has made progress far beyond what anyone could have predicted. Deep learning, the tool that powers Goole Search and conversational speech-to-text algorithms like smart devices (Alexa, Google Home), has opened the door to any number of world-changing innovations.

Whether or not this is something that will be ready as soon as many CEO’s are hoping is still to be seen.  Regardless, it’s safe to say that whatever the future looks like, smart automation will be at the core of its progress.