AI and rapid advances in technology often get a bad press – but are the hype and fears justified?
Tom Dixon, Head of Technology at Hiscox, discusses how technology affects the job market, and what we need to be developing to ensure a balanced employment future.
The future of modern work is regularly called into question. With technology progressing at a more rapid pace than ever before in history, people are worried about automation and artificial intelligence (AI) subjugating their careers.
The figures vary; some estimate that 35% of all jobs will be made redundant by advances in tech, others that up to 15m jobs in Britain are vulnerable to robotic replacements. Given the sombre predictions that seem to dominate in the media, it’s unsurprising that 70% of people (according to one study) are concerned about machines doing the job of humans.
But is the future as bleak as some news outlets would have us believe?
Change is disruptive, and it always has been. In the 1800’s, luddites (highly skilled textile workers) smashed weaving machines to protest how technology was edging them out of their own careers. Or rather, to protest how — in a time of economic strife — the elite relied on sub-standard automation to maximise their own profits, to the detriment of workers and consumers.
It’s a story many modern individuals can surely relate to. Who hasn’t given an exasperated sigh and considered taking a blunt, heavy object to a self-service checkout as the cool mechanical voice declares ‘Unexpected item in bagging area,’ ad nauseum?
And yet, supermarkets continue to install these hugely unpopular, automated bores.
However much we may dislike self-service machines, there’s no reason to fret too much over the futures of people who might have otherwise been supermarket cashiers. The job of tending a checkout relies more on soft skills such as patience, empathy and friendliness than extensive training. Just as switchboard operators and video store clerks before them turned their people skills to other professions, so too the supermarket cashier will find a place for their talents.
Employees won’t just be able to take similar roles in different careers — technology has, over the past hundred years, created more jobs than it has destroyed, and there’s no reason to imagine that the next hundred years will be any different.
As this interactive job timeline illustrates, while some jobs have become obsolete, advances in tech have initiated whole new career paths. Where were User Experience Designers before the launch of Mosaic in 1993? Or Cyber Security Experts before ‘Brian’, the first PC Virus, kicked off a new age of cyber-crime in 1986? And it’s not just jobs involved in the building and maintenance of computers that have benefited.
The jobs that are passed off to our mechanical counterparts are often ‘hard, dull and dangerous’ a recent review by Deloitte concluded. Professions reliant on muscle power — such as cleaners, miners and domestic servants — have declined in the last twenty years, whereas ‘caring’ professions (think teachers, welfare workers and assistants) have grown by several hundred percent.
This offers an optimistic view of the future of employment. Yes, there will be advanced roles for the technologically literate, but as hard labour is increasingly delegated to machines, it leaves humans with the opportunity to put resources into improving our society.
Developing professions that utilise the profoundly human characteristics of compassion, empathy and community (while allowing self-service checkout machines to handle the laborious task of scanning goods, for example) will only benefit our society.
The ‘soft-skills’ that AI simply cannot replicate are our greatest asset. But, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It’s no good replacing human workers with mechanical until we make provisions for the retraining and re-employing of the people who stand to lose out.
As technology progresses ever faster, its down to businesses, governments and training bodies to ensure that machines are used to enable, rather than replace us.