Robots and the future of your job

Published: 12th Dec 2016

In brief

Claim

The governor of the Bank of England has said that 15 million jobs in the UK could be stolen by robots.

Conclusion

That's one way of putting it. Mark Carney quoted an estimate that 15 million jobs in the UK could be automated over the next few decades. In the past, new technology has created new types of work and hasn't caused mass unemployment in the long run.

“Bank Chief: Robots to steal 15M of your jobs”

Daily Mail, 6 December 2016

It’s true that the Bank of England has estimated that 15 million jobs in the UK could be automated over the next few decades, equivalent to just under half the jobs in the UK right now. The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, made a reference to the estimate in a recent speech.

He didn’t give a precise time-frame for when this could happen. The Bank based its calculations on a study of jobs in the USA, which listed which types of job were at ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ risk of automation. The study made “no attempt to estimate the number of jobs that will actually be automated,” and judged the probabilities over “some unspecified number of years”.

So although the report suggested that that jobs in the high risk category such as rubbish collectors, paralegals, or receptionists might be automated, “relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two,” it didn’t make any hard predictions.

It also noted some of the potential barriers to automation, including costs, regulatory worries, and political or social resistance.

You can’t factcheck the future

These estimates aren’t hard facts. Predicting what technology will look like in a few years’ time is “notoriously difficult”, as the authors of the report put it.

What we can say is that economists in leading roles at the Bank of England are taking these ideas seriously, and thinking about what they mean for the future of the economy.

In one sense, replacing human labour with machines isn’t anything new. There have been concerns about automation at least since the Luddite movement started smashing up factory machines in the 19th century. One difference is that this time it’s also white-collar jobs like accountancy (or factchecking) rather than manual jobs that might soon be done by machines.

So far, new technology has tended to be good for workers overall. New technologies create demands for new types of products, and that means new types of jobs – often with higher wages. For example, people used to be able to get jobs as human ‘computers’ – a job now stolen by a kind of robot – but there are new kinds of jobs, like web design, which didn’t exist before. In the long term, these kinds of gains are a main cause of economic growth.

So it would be a mistake to assume that there are a fixed number of jobs in the economy, some of which can be replaced by machines. Just because your job is automated won’t necessarily mean you stay unemployed.

But on the other hand, you may need to retrain to do something else.

New technology is only an advantage to workers who have the skills to use it. Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, has suggested that this is one reason behind the widening gap between high and low wages we saw in the 20th century.

No-one knows what the future looks like. But it’s true that leading economists are thinking seriously about things like machine learning, what that means for our idea of jobs and work, and the future of capitalism.


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