You could be forgiven for thinking that the future isn’t bright for humans; that AI and computers are eventually going to replace us all until the planet has no real need of us. It’s not entirely true, of course, but what does the future of work actually look like, and are our jobs really under threat?
There’s little in the world of work that can’t be done by computers, either now or in the foreseeable future. Machines can already do many things more efficiently than humans, across all sorts of industries from farming (think autonomous tractors) to retail (Amazon’s army of warehouse robots).
Even tasks we used to think of as ‘safe’ from robots, such as those involving quintessentially human traits like empathy and creativity, are slowly becoming things computers might one day do.
Up to 30 per cent of UK jobs could be at "high risk of automation" by the early 2030s, according to a 2017 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers. A McKinsey Global Institute study published last year concluded that the automation of tasks will change the daily work activities of everyone. Everyone. It’s not if the robots are coming and whether they’ll steal our jobs; it’s when and how.
But there are silver linings. Indeed, you might see the coming robotic revolution as good news if you run a business that might operate more efficiently with fewer people and more automated tasks. What’s not to love about a cheaper, more reliable workforce that doesn’t ever need sick pay, holidays or maternity leave?
Still, I’m something of a sceptic. I vividly remember my technology teacher, Mrs Kearney, trying to explain to us, circa 1988, how the fridges of the future would 'know' when we’d used up all the milk. Not only that, but they’d automatically order more and even arrange for it to be delivered to our door.
Evidently she was on to something and might have been among the first to envisage the Internet of Things. But it gives me comfort to think that it took some 30 years for her predictions to materialise. I doubt it’ll be another three decades before my groceries are delivered by Metal Mickey instead of the nice man from the supermarket, but I wonder if the pace of change might be slower than we imagine.
So, on that basis, I’m not going to start panicking just yet. I could have retired by the time anyone works out how to get robots to write compelling content, so I’m hoping my job is safe at least for a little while yet.
Naive? Perhaps. So I’m also going to encourage my kids to think about pursuing careers in industries that won’t make their roles redundant before they’ve even had the chance to rise through the ranks and earn a decent income.
I’m advising them to steer clear of careers with roles that entail repetitive, routine tasks that could easily be replicated by machines, and to think instead about how the job of their dreams might be changed or enhanced by technology. One son wants to be an architect and the other has his sights set on playing for Arsenal, so I’m reasonably optimistic about their chances of landing those gigs before the cyborgs beat them to it.
Besides, the fear that machines will take over our jobs isn’t a new thing. That was a feature of the industrial revolution, and yet we’re still here. Yes, the shift to new manufacturing processes changed the world, but it rewrote the rules of the workplace - it didn’t write us out of it.
Indeed, some say we’re on the cusp of the Fourth Digital Revolution, wherein the merging of the physical and digital worlds will create a raft of new careers and job opportunities. If that’s the case, the secret to future-proofing your career is surely to focus on developing skills that will thrive in a workplace where humans and machines collaborate.
Ultimately, I’m convinced that the future isn’t nearly as predictable as we tend to think it is. As the essay by Mary Schmich (made famous by Baz Luhrmann) goes, the things we worry about rarely end up being the things that cause us trouble:
"Don't worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as affective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindsides you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday."
Cold comfort, perhaps. But the point is that worrying about whether robots will steal our jobs is a waste of time. Either they will, and worrying won’t stop that, or they won’t, and so there’s nothing to worry about.
My hunch is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think robots will revolutionise the world of work but maybe that just means we’ll spend fewer hours at work and more time on the beach. Instead of rendering us useless, I’m choosing to believe the rise of the machines will serve to show us just how irreplaceable human beings truly are.
Looking back, I didn’t really believe Mrs Kearney when she told us that thing about the robot fridge, but I thought of her this morning when I asked Alexa to add milk to my shopping list. Somehow, I think Mrs Kearney would have known if a robot apocalypse was likely. She certainly didn’t seem worried and so, for now, neither am I.
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