Will we survive the robotic revolution?

AI and robotics
By Atholl Duncan, Executive Director, UK and Global with ICAS

24 May 2017

Where lies the truth about automation and artificial intelligence and their effects on global employment? Delegates at the ICAS Conference will find out on 20 September.

One Big Four leader thinks automation means employment in the accountancy profession might have peaked for all time. Hot on his heels, a PwC report claimed that 30% of all UK jobs are at high risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) and robots by 2030. In the US, that could be 38%.

The World Economic Forum predicts that robots could replace five million workers by 2020 in the 15 most developed economies. The International Labour Organization thinks half the current jobs in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia might go in a handful of years.

Then, just as I was checking the due date of my pension, the US treasury secretary and former hedgie Steven Mnuchin stopped me in my tracks. He stated categorically: “It’s 50 to 100 years away.”

Mind you, it might be tricky for someone in the current US administration to concede that it’s the robots, not the Mexicans, Chinese and Germans, who “are taking your jobs”.

The reality of automation

So, where lies the truth? Old lags and optimists will point out that we’ve been here before. US farm jobs represented 40% of the American workforce in 1900, but when the tractor came along that figure fell quite rapidly to just 2%.

Automated telling didn’t mark the end for bank tellers. In fact, more people were employed in banking as their roles changed. When businesses started using computers in the 1960s, clerks were not thrown into the poorhouse.

Emails reduced the volume of letters but the delivery business transformed itself. Now, “white van man” ferries torrents of parcels to our doors, fulfilling online orders.

Over the last hundred years, the developed economies have never been that far away from full employment. They’ve adapted. The labour force has grown. The school leaving age has risen. The number of people in higher and further education has seen the biggest boom of all. This is all good.

Not that long ago, it would have seemed eccentric to advocate hiring people to work on social media or big data analysis, never mind as a chief robotics officer. New jobs, previously unimaginable, have always come along.

But will it be different this time? Imagine a world in which driverless vehicles are in the majority. A world in which technology like Siri will wipe out battalions of call centre workers. Robots have already taken over moving stuff around peopleless warehouses. Where next?

Australian company Fastbrick Robotics has a droid which lays 1,000 bricks an hour. That would take two British brickies all day, without their tea breaks.

This article was first featured in the May 2017 edition of CA magazine


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