The Bank of England is more famous for raising interest rates than stoking fears of a robot uprising. However, this week the chief economist of the UK’s central bank generated plenty of great headlines with a somewhat dramatically worded warning that ‘large swathes’ of the country’s workforce could find themselves ‘technologically unemployed’. Andy Haldane, who was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today Programme’ was giving an opinion on the potential fallout of what is being termed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
Powered by the emergence of the latest technology in the world of AI, Haldane believes that over the next couple of decades we will see machines master many of the cognitive and technical skills of humans. His warning was, however, more in the spirit of a proactive approach to anticipating the change that has already started and learning from the lessons of the past to retrain the working population now and head off social upheaval.
The lessons we should have learned, believes Haldane, are that the industrial revolutions we have already passed through as a society, while each heralding huge long term improvements to living standards also “had a wrenching and lengthy impact on the jobs market, on the lives and livelihoods of large swathes of society.” He also thinks it is possible, even likely, that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will cut even deeper into employment than its predecessors if we don’t start taking concrete steps now to stave that scenario off.
Haldane described the ‘dark side’ of technological revolutions as a painful transition process that heightens inequality and leads to social and financial tensions. The good news is that many experts believe that mass unemployment does not by any means need to be the repercussion of integrating the latest technology in the world into the UK economy. We currently have the lowest rates of unemployment of any moment since 1975, which is a strong starting point.
While the UK government’s AI council thinks up to 50% of the jobs that currently employ people in the UK could be made obsolete by new technology, there is also opinion that the integration of that technology could create more jobs than those lost, at least in the short term. 71% of the UK chief executives polled by management consultancy KPMG thought that their technology plans would, overall, lead to more new jobs, particularly for technical experts.
Other technology ambassadors also support the scenario that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will simply shift the focus of human occupation away from manual tasks. That will free us up to focus on jobs that require emotional intelligence and creativity. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that could well be the case. We only have to look at the boom in artisanal products and services in recent years. Would people have found employment, and built solid businesses, out of £3.50 cupcakes 10 or 15 years ago? That may be a slightly frivolous example but shows that as the economy develops, we have more time, and disposable income, for the more intricate, the higher quality and to create.
If all the ‘basics’ are cheap, fast and easy to make or provide, will the economy not simply move towards a point where added value quality and creativity is assigned economic worth? Haldane is certainly right that we should not be blind to the dangers the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings and plan in advance to retrain the workforce to soften transition as much as possible. If we can achieve that we can avoid much of the pain and hopefully smoothly enter a new age of human creativity and brilliance on a level beyond any previous. With AI-powered robots doing the boring stuff, humanity should be free to fly.