Andrew Tromans and Adam Collins

Naked Politics Bloggers 

The robots are coming for your job. If your work is repetitive and requires little creativity, you may find yourself given a p45 and replaced by a machine in the next decade or so. The Economist recently reported that according to studies around 35% of jobs in the UK are at risk due to automation. Jobs in the administrative, retail and manufacturing sector are particularly vulnerable. But what sort of impact might rapid technological change have on society? Will work be redundant in the future replaced by a life of leisure? Or will existing inequalities deepen between the ‘have jobs ‘and ‘have nots’.

Rise of the Robots

The tell-tale signs of automation are all around us. From the more than 40,000  self-checkouts in supermarkets across the UK to more fringe experiments with ‘driverless cars’. Online shopping has produced a well-documented decline in the retail sector. But now, the ride-sharing giant UBER trailed self-driven cars in Pittsburgh and San Francisco in 2016. At present ‘driverless cars ‘ still require a human supervisor to make manoeuvres, such as reversing around a corner, that would seem absurdly dangerous to a computer. But it would be misleading to suggest that this will always be the case. Perhaps, not overnight, but certainly in the next decade the 40,000 UBER drivers in the UK could see themselves competing with machines. UBER drivers and other “gig economy” workers are already vulnerable to exploitation thanks to their dubious status as “self-employed”. It  is difficult to see the those in charge of global firms like UBER  being overly concerned about the hollowing out of their industry, so long as people still use their product.

Call centres are another workplace that could soon be hit by sweeping automaton. Currently in the UK more than a million people are employed in contact centres that are typically based in former industrial areas like the North East of England. It is possible that in the next few decades that many of these  jobs will disappear, as all but the most complex customer queries are answered by machines.  Currently, in the  Philippines, outsourced call centres are running  experiments  that record answers to run-of-the-mill telephone enquires. The aim in the long term is to see  artificial intelligence  (AI)  can handle calls. Profit and efficiency are the key motivators behind these trials, because at the end of the day a piece of software doesn’t need a lunch break or a paid holiday. It should be stated that it isn’t only low-skilled occupations that are under threat from automation but also archetypal “middle class” jobs in the legal profession and accountancy. It is easy see how a computer might be able to sift through masses of documents and data in a fraction of the time  that it would take a paralegal.

Two Futures

But what are policy-makers to do about this?  Some economists are calm about the economic prospects in the near future.  Optimists point to the fact that firmly established industries today such as computer programming or video-game design were unimaginable fifty years ago. They look to history to make their argument; in the first wave of industrial revolution the economy shifted from being agricultural to industrial, which eventually created new jobs. However, this process was hardly painless, as it might well be as disruptive again if a response to the next wave of automation is not planned for.  A laissez- faire attitude to rapid economic change might see a lost generation of ‘millennials’ with outdated skills, who are unable to adapt to the new economic climate.

There is another possible future. One that is both realistic and transformative. It would hardly matter if automation causes mass unemployment if everyone was paid Universal Basic Income (UBI). Universal Basic Income would allow everyone a measure of economic security and freedom to pursue a life of leisure, to start a business or take part in socially useful activity such as care or community work. Universal Basic Income has attracted interest across the globe. With experiments currently taking place in Finland and Canada. The two year pilot in Finland started in early 2017, with 2000 unemployed people between ages of 25-58 being given 560 euros a month. Economists and policy makers will be fixing their eyes on Finland in 2019 to see if the project has any merit.

In the UK, there have been consultations and proposals for a trial of UBI in Glasgow and the West Midlands. However, there has been no formal action from government at any level. The Green Party has been the most enthusiastic about UBI and adopted it as party policy at the General Election of 2015.   Labour has made sympathetic noises on the subject when shadow chancellor John McDonnell announced he was establishing a working group to examine the feasibility of UBI.   Inevitably, UBI comes with a considerable price tag.  Economist  Anthony Painter, forecasts it would cost around £18bn a year to provide  every adult in the UK with £4000 guaranteed income. Or, in other words, that would equate to a 3p rise income tax. If UBI can be supported by enough evidence and is sold as a means of ending the poverty trap of the current benefits system perhaps it will be able to capture the public’s attention.

However, in the context of the snap election of 2017 it is doubtful that there will be much discussion about automation or UBI with Brexit depriving many other issues of oxygen. But the time is coming soon, when we will have to choose how to manage the effects of technological change. Do we continue to shrug our shoulders or try something bold?

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Last Update: April 23, 2024