Lessons from history for the new era of automation


By James Cornwell, Quality and Environmental Director, Area

At least since the Industrial Revolution, as the first waves of people swapped country for city in response to the upheaval it wrought, we have known that technological innovation changes things in ways other than those we predict. It’s a lesson we’ve been learning over and over again in subsequent centuries. Yet in spite of all the lessons from history, we continue to worry that technology replaces us, when what the reality is that it always displaces us. 

As the technological revolution gathered pace in the late 20th Century, this manifested itself in the belief that machines would eliminate work. As this film from 1967 demonstrates (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpq5ZmANp0k), the predictions themselves were often broadly correct in some ways, but the outcomes (and sexual politics) were all wrong. We know now that, far from ushering in a new era of leisure time, the technological era has led to us working more rather than less. We’re not doing the same things, but we’re working harder on new ones.  

So you have to wonder about the forecasts of the impact of the coming era of robotics and AI. Perhaps the most widely cited currently is a new report from the Oxford Martin Institute which forecasts that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk from computerisation. The situation looks even more worrying in countries with developing economies because, as the study highlights, some jobs are safer than others. In China, over three quarters are at risk of automation, according to the report.

The rise of robots?

Despite accelerating progress in the various forms of automation, the actual numbers of robots in the workplace remain low. South Korea has the highest density of robots in the world, but they take up just 5 percent of manufacturing jobs, amongst those considered most at risk of automation. Europe is one of the pioneers of automation in the workplace yet it acquired just 50,000 in 2015. China bought just 70,000. The Chinese government predicts that even if it buys half a million in the very near future – twice as many as the whole world bought in 2015 – there will only be one and a half robots for every hundred employees by 2020. 

While robots are the most talked about manifestation of the new era of automation, they are not the only one. But even in more mundane aspects of the technology, predictions can come unstuck very quickly. For example, last year industry analysts Gartner projected massive growth in the virtual assistant market. It claimed that two-thirds of people in mature economies would be using tools like Alexa, Siri and Cortana regularly by the end of 2016. While there has been an undoubted increase in their use, the prediction is very wide of the mark. 

None of this is to say that automation is not already changing the economy and the way we work. The current rounds of industrial action on London Underground and the rail network show that we are already in a period of adjustment. But we must be wary of being too prescriptive in proclaiming what will happen as a result. We’ve always been wrong to some degree or other when we’ve adopted that approach.

The reality of automation

The one trap we must avoid is to assume that a robot is coming for our job. Most automation of work will be partial, as it has always been whenever a new technology enters the market. In a piece for Vox, the economist James Bessen highlights the fact that despite extensive automation since 1950, only one of the 270 detailed occupations listed in the 1950 US Census was eliminated due to automation – elevator operators.

So much of what happens as a result of the coming era of automation will be down to the way we view it. One aspect of this that is already apparent is that few people now claim that it will free us to pursue day-long leisure pursuits while robots and systems do all the work. We’ve learned our lesson on that score. The machines may take over some of the things we do, but they won’t replace us and we won’t be spending the day playing Frisbee on the beach instead.

Instead there is talk amongst those who take an optimistic viewpoint that automation will offer us an opportunity to embrace our human natures and do the things we are best at, most obviously being creative and interacting with other people. So the possible release of time could be taken up by education and learning and doing those things we choose to do, such as volunteering or caring.   

Even the idea that automation may necessitate the introduction of a universal basic income is something we could welcome. Not only would it ensure that the transition to a new era of greater automation would be less traumatic, it would be an admission of the realities of a new economic model in which both people and non-human intelligence generate wealth alongside each other, liberating people to live their lives in new ways. It would also acknowledge the unpaid work done by people which helps to improve the lives of so many others. 

We must learn the lessons from history if we are to fully enjoy the benefits of this new era. What the past teaches us is that technology does not replace us. It changes us and the world around us; a world in which human and non-human intelligence have a role to play in partnership and for the benefit of all.