Robert Booth, The Guardian, September 19, 2017
Four million jobs in the British private sector could be replaced by robots in the next decade, according to business leaders asked about the future of automation and artificial intelligence.
The potential impact amounts to 15% of the current workforce in the sector and emerged in a poll conducted by YouGov for the Royal Society of Arts, whose chief executive, Matthew Taylor, has been advising Downing Street on the future of modern work.
Jobs in finance and accounting, transport and distribution and in media, marketing and advertising are most likely to be automated in the next decade, the research says.
In the UK, 13% of employers think more than 30% of jobs will become automated in the next 10 years
% of employers who think more than 30% of jobs will be automated
The RSA’s prediction of the impact of robotics on working lives is lower than some other estimates. Four years ago, academics at the University of Oxford predicted 35% of jobs could be rendered obsolete by new technology, while the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that up to 15m jobs in Britain were at risk from robots “hollowing out” the workforce.
The RSA is also more optimistic about the potential of robots and artificial intelligence than US tech billionaire Elon Musk, who has said AI was “the scariest problem” and “our biggest existential threat” because, he predicts, they will be able to do everything better than humans.
Research by the University of Oxford and Deloitte last year predicted more than 850,000 public sector jobs could be lost by 2030 through automation.
Asda operates a fully automated distribution warehouse in west London; white-collar tasks are being automated by PwC, the accountancy firm, and Linklaters, the law firm, which have been developing software robots that use artificial intelligence to learn to do research tasks usually undertaken by junior accountants and lawyers.
The RSA warns that artificial intelligence and robotics will “undoubtedly cause the loss of some jobs, whether it is autonomous vehicles pushing taxi drivers out of business or picking and packing robots usurping warehouse workers”. But it argues that new technologies could phase out mundane jobs, raise productivity levels and so deliver higher wages and “allow workers to concentrate on more human-centric roles that are beyond the reach of machines”.
It found that business leaders largely believed that new technologies were more likely to alter jobs rather than eliminate them and that this, combined with the creation of new types of jobs, would lead to greater prosperity in the long run.
Care homes are also trialling robots. One in Lincoln plans to use one to help residents remember daily necessities such as taking medication. The robot will also monitor their movements and habits as a nurse would. A care company in London, Three Sisters Home Care, will soon trial the use of robots for lifting people so only one care worker will be needed rather than two.
Three Sisters’ chief executive, Jobeda Ali, told the researchers: “If I don’t have to send a person to do a transfer job [lifting], I can send them to have a cup of tea and a chat. This is a much better use of their time than carrying patients or cooking meals.”
The prediction that millions of jobs will be lost to robots led the Trades Union Congress to warn against “shredding good jobs”.
“The UK must make the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies offer,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC. “Robots and AI could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need to talk about who benefits – and how workers get a fair share. The productivity gains must be used to improve pay and conditions for workers.”
Benedict Dellot, the author of the report, said the technical limitations on robots, evidenced so far by driverless cars crashing and the difficulty of getting robots to read at an adult level, would restrict the speed with which jobs will be automated.
The RSA has also warned that Britain needs to invest more in robots or risk falling further behind countries including the US, France, Germany, Spain and Italy where companies are buying more robots than in the UK.
“AI and robotics could solve some of the gaps and problems in the labour market with low-paid, dull, dirty, dangerous jobs that nobody really wants to fill,” Dellot said. “The technology has the potential to fundamentally improve productivity levels in the UK.”
The report also warns that increasing automation could deepen economic inequality and “demographic biases could become further entrenched”. It argues that to avoid this policymakers should take control of the development of the technology by creating an ethical framework to guide the behaviour of AI and to encourage investment in “benevolent technology that enriches the worker experience”.