Of course robots will steal our jobs

2 minute read

Machines have been stealing our jobs since the start of the industrial revolution. It’s what happens next that matters, says author and technologist Calum Chace

Sian Harrington

Robots steal jobs

New technology has always resulted in job losses and today’s fourth industrial technologies are no different. The question of whether robots will steal our jobs is an easy one to answer, says author Calum Chace in a Field Guide to the Future of Work produced by the UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Of course they will.

Automation is a shape-shifter, says Chace, author of Artificial Intelligence and the Two Singularities and Surviving AI. Top of the list for roles that will be automated are commercial fleet drivers, he suggests, of which there are five million in the US and one million in the UK. Other jobs that will become obsolete are call centre operatives while Amazon’s cashier-less supermarkets are “tolling the warning bell for America’s 3.5million cashiers,” says Chace.

No, the question is not whether robots will steal our jobs. It is whether these jobs will be replaced, and that is much harder to answer he says.

“Because automation has not caused lasting widespread unemployment in the past, some people (including quite a few economists) have concluded that it cannot do so in the future. But their argument is facile. Past performance is no guarantee of future outcome – even a stockbroker can tell you that. If it was, we would not be able to fly. “

Chase argues that past automation has mostly been about replacing muscle power with machines. But the automation this time is cognitive.

“If machines take our cognitive jobs, what will we humans offer next? Can we trade on the fact that we are conscious and the machines are not? Unconscious beings cannot have true empathy, so perhaps we can all be each other’s nurses and therapists.”

The problem with assuming jobs will be replaced this time, as in the past, is that this time the growth in machine power is exponential. In 10 years’ time, machines will be 128 times more powerful than those we have today, says Chace. In 20, they will be 8,000 times more powerful and in 30 years a million times more powerful.

“To blithely declare, as so many people do today, that machines in 30 years will not be capable of doing any job that a human can do for money is not only complacent: it is irresponsible and dangerous,” he says.

But before everyone goes off in a mad panic, this exponential growth in machine power does not necessarily mean disaster. Automation drastically reduces the cost of providing a good or a service.

“If the economy is largely demonetised, then it becomes feasible to make everyone rich, in the sense of having access to all the goods and services that you need for a very good standard of living. If technological unemployment forces us to separate income from jobs, there will have to be a transfer of resources from those who are rich, and those who are still earning. This is probably only achievable if the economy is demonetised.”

Predictions are impossible but, says Chace, the one thing that we can be confident of is that there will be a lot more job churn than we are used to. “We are going to have to get much better at re-training and re-skilling, and continuous education will have to become a real thing,” he says.

Published 9 January 2019

To blithely declare that machines in 30 years will not be capable of doing any job that a human can do for money is not only complacent: it is irresponsible and dangerous

Enjoyed this story?
Sign up for our newsletter here.