Automated Responses

Automation: it’s inevitable and it’s here. As humanity’s technological capability continues enhancing, we are developing smarter ways to make our lives easier.

Automation: it’s inevitable and it’s here. As humanity’s technological capability continues enhancing, we are developing smarter ways to make our lives easier.

We now stand at the point where robotics and automation are on the cusp of a revolution. A revolution that will radically change every aspect of our society. The problem is we are nowhere near ready.

In the awesome futurist video ‘Humans Need Not Apply‘ CGP Grey explains that just as human created “mechanical muscles” during the Industrial revolution, we have now created “mechanical minds” which are poised to achieve a similar revolution.

We can already see computers replacing those with manual, low skilled jobs. But, no one is truly safe, even white-collar and professional jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots or software.

As robotics becomes cheaper and grow in sophistication, they only need to do the job better than a human in order for it to be beneficial for a business to replace its human workforce.

However, despite the fact millions of jobs are at risk of replacement, this is not an issue on the lips of many. A much quoted study by Oxford University estimates that 47% of jobs could be automated within 20 years. This is a huge and rapid change that could become reality. Simply by talking about the issue more we are raising awareness and making people alert to this change. So what can we do about it?

One potential way of dealing with automation is to try to resist. This has been the approach adopted so far by the Trade Union movement and they have had some success – the London Underground still have drivers, even though the DLR has run without one since it opened in 1987. However, as CGP Grey points out, this is an exception, almost every time unions have tried to fight technological advancement, they’ve lost. The fact that supermarkets are gradually replacing checkout staff with self-serving machines demonstrates this.

Another possible option is to introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is an idea which is already being experimented and the Green Party is strongly advocating it. The concept is simple, but bold: pay every citizen the same amount each month so they have enough to live off. This would be a major change to society and would see the end of the welfare state.

The idea does have some significant merits. If you’re stuck in a job where you were being treated unfairly, UBI would allow you to challenge your boss without fear of financial hardship – it would always be there to fall back on. However, one counter argument is that by introducing UBI, it becomes impossible to maintain open borders. The options would be to create two types of citizen or to close the borders, which in the post-Brexit world, might not sound like a ridiculous idea.

But what is Labour doing about this? Well, Tom Watson’s ‘The Future of Work Commission’ is already looking at this issue in depth. Fingers crossed it will provide some practical solutions which Labour can put to the electorate.

Despite this, I believe we are not as alert to this change as we should be. Especially as this ‘revolution’ looks set to disproportionately affect the UK’s youth. Many young people rely on low-skilled and manual jobs to support themselves, whether that’s working during your studies or filling a gap in-between jobs; the fact that bar staff, baristas and supermarket workers are at risk of being replaced by machines erodes a vital lifeline from our generation and the ones to come. The future’s coming and we’re simply not prepared.


James Potts is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesPotts

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