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The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work – Part 1

July 5, 2016

Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Let’s remind ourselves of the vision set out by the Founding Fathers in the US Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Noble sentiments indeed. Can they survive the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the world of work. Or can new technology actually enhance “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
On 22 June, Huw Williams blog about the March of the Robots https://samiconsulting.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/march-of-the-robots/ described some of the amazing new developments in the field of robotics, and the impact robotics is having in the world of work, citing the decision of Foxconn, Apple’s key supplier, to downsize its workforce in China from 110,000 to 50,000.
The Evidence
Tomorrow, SAMI will be meeting in workshop session to develop its own scenario set for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we will be blogging the results of that in due course. Ahead of that, it’s worth looking again at what might be happening. Here are a few points of evidence:
According to Frey & Osborne http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf 47% of UK employment is threatened over the next two decades, but according to OECD, the figure is “only” 10% – that’s still an awful lot of employment.
Experts seem to agree that the jobs most at risk are generally “routine” jobs: the FT’s Employment Correspondent Sarah O’Connor, speaking yesterday at a Resolution Foundation Conference on robotics, commented that it would be no bad thing if some of the jobs she had witnessed were to be lost – for example in call centres and large distribution warehouses, in which employees are utilised as “human robots”.
UK productivity has essentially flatlined since 2007. It desperately needs a boost. If robots mean that more output can be generated from the same amount of labour and capital, then wages can – at least in theory – increase.
Robotics will enhance our lives as well as changing the world of work: therapeutic robots are already in use and proving beneficial for people with alzheimer’s (a growing disease in an aging population) and children with autism. “Nano swarms” are being developed, which will “swim” through the human body (even through organs, such as the liver) to seek and destroy cancer cells. As well as worker robots, there will be household robots, as Huw’s blog described, and there will be games, toys and educational robots.
Developments in AI and technology will make us more connected than ever, and give us access to unprecedented amounts of information. In 5-10 years’ time, most IT will be artificially intelligent.
Change is coming fast. Even if the overall impact is beneficial, there will still be massive disruption, and consequent impacts on the economy and society. Policy makers will need to understand and be more rapidly responsive to change.
Watch this Space
The Brexit referendum on 23 June showed once more the dangers of making forecasts without exploring the range of possible futures.  Scenarios are safer. We will publish our scenarios following tomorrow’s workshop. But there is enough evidence to suggest that there are grounds for hope and optimism as well as fear.
Finally, and returning to the land of the free, let’s remember that there’s nothing new about “robot rage”. A headline in the New York Times ran
“March of the Machines Makes Idle Hands”.
The date was 1928.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. wastedspacer permalink
    July 6, 2016 12:50 am

    Another “hi” from the People’s Republic of California. All manner of automated solutions have been proposed and several are quite capable of functioning far better/safer than a human. The SF Bay Area BART rail system is a prime example, it was originally designed (and funded) to be a fully automated system. Due mostly to transport union minimum-manning-level pressure the drivers, who make well over six figure salaries with great pension plans insist all Bart trains must have an operator on board to press the “toot-toot” button as they come into the stations and lean out the window to see that the doors are clear (a platform alarm and camera detection system could do this). Otherwise train operators have been seen dozing, reading books, studying for degrees and on the phone (though the latter was supposedly banned by Bart a few years ago – but who knows if that ear-bud connects to a phone or not).

    http://nscozzaro.blogspot.com/2011/04/make-bart-automated.html

    Of course, California pales into anti-automation insignificance relative to India which may be the antithesis of an automation utopia where employing millions of people to perform dull, repetitive and otherwise easily automated jobs for a pittance is far far better than having them unemployed.

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  1. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work – Part 2 | SAMI Consulting
  2. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work – Part 3 The Challenges for Government | SAMI Consulting

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