By Michael O’Sullivan
“Imagine how a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.” Tech Writer Nick Bilton, New York Times.
Encompassed in this less often quoted article from a little-known tech expert, is all that many people worry about when it comes to AI.
First, a robot is able to do a highly skilled job, so what do we need doctors for? Or nurses, or mechanics, or drivers, or office or bar staff? Second, if we don’t fit into a set of closely defined parameters, the machine will likely kill us off – what use are we anyway?
This is the hysteria that tends to associate with anything to do robots or AI. It’s also pretty much a bunch of bunkum.
Why don’t we hear more about how AI is going to benefit our lives and, yes, create jobs for the future?
That’s not to say automation and AI of all sorts doesn’t present growing challenges to our society. The people who were replaced by mindless, ultra-efficient machines in car factories around the world over during the last three or four decades, all needed to find other means of employment.
And many did.
Work and Social Changes
Technology, social changes and advancement have always meant the loss of jobs. In the last 40 years, many once common roles have simply disappeared. You don’t see milkmen anymore. In the seventies and eighties, they were there on our streets every morning. Chimney sweeps are few and far between. Offices used to have large typing pools, now we all do our own word processing. Further back, there used to be lamp lighters and knocker uppers.
They all disappeared because of changes and evolution in society. Is the advent of AI and its impact on our working lives any different?
As with most social changes, things with AI are not as clear cut as many people think. Research last year by Redwood Software and Sapio Research showed that IT experts were predicting nearly 60% of business processes could be fully automated by 2022.
On the other hand, research and advisory firm Gartner believes that AI will actually produce more jobs than it displaces.
Most experts believe that we won’t run out of jobs. As always, new ones will come along.
What matters, of course, is how we manage significant changes like this. The one big challenge that we all face is not the development of AI at all but coping with the pace that this change is taking place at.
How do we ensure that, especially in the UK, we have the workforce that is trained and ready for the future? Changes in technology could often take years, if not decades to overcome working practices. Now they are happening virtually overnight.
An Optimistic View of AI
- More new jobs are going to be created. 30 years ago, no one had ever heard of a social media manager or data scientist. In truth, changes happen, and new opportunities come along.
- AI will help us do the jobs that are not replaced more efficiently. 30 years ago, we didn’t have smartphones and not many homes had a desktop computer. In hospitals all around the UK, for example, clinicians are being helped to make better diagnostic decisions because of AI.
AI certainly has the potential to alter how we work. It will also certainly deliver greater opportunities for businesses to transform themselves and become more economically viable. That means more investment as new and established tech businesses thrive and employ more people.
Preparing Workers For the Future
According to McKinsey & Company:
“Workers will need to acquire new skills and adapt to the increasingly capable machines alongside them in the workplace. They may have to move from declining occupations to growing and, in some cases, new occupations.”
McKinsey’s research looked at 2,000 different work activities and found that about half would be affected by AI in some way in the near future. These activities generally fall into the category of physical jobs within a structured and highly predictable environment, such as in manufacturing, as well as data driven jobs where machines can calculate more efficiently.
Jobs like management and delivering expertise of one type or another would be less likely to be affected. Technology could and would, however, be used to improve performance and efficiency in these areas also.
It’s the speed of transition that is going to be the biggest challenge that all communities and businesses face. How do we make sure that our workforce is both adaptive and competent enough to survive in a world that is increasingly dependent on AI?
And can we really afford to wait or procrastinate.
PwC backs up the assertion of McKinsey in saying:
“Leaders will have to understand how AI will impact their workforces, then get them prepared: upskill some workers to do existing jobs, but with AI, and retrain and hire others for the new roles that AI will demand. Schools and parents will have to teach children both STEM skills and a culture of creativity and lifelong learning.”
Where is the Workforce Plan?
The forecasts from McKinsey, PwC and others make sense. There’s no reason why the UK shouldn’t prosper in this quickly changing environment. According to Labour Deputy Leader and Labour Digital Champion, Tom Watson, however, the current Government seems to be sleepwalking towards a disaster.
The truth is that tackling this issue of the digital workforce lies at the heart of everything that Labour stands for. The recent IPPR report Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy highlighted the fantastic potential that lies ahead of us but also the huge challenges. The problem is that getting this wrong will almost certainly lead to greater inequality.
And, according to Watson, it’s a situation that is more critical than many current MPs think: “We are becoming a country of affluent leaders, and struggling workers, with less space in the middle and fewer chances for progression.”
We are heading into what many call the second machine age or the 4th industrial revolution, whatever you want to call it. Sadly the UK is poorly equipped to handle this particular revolution as things stand at the moment. Coping with it requires us to create a new, modern industrial strategy that is fit for purpose and serves everyone, not just the very few rich at the top of the tree.
One key undertaking in tackling this change is to create a body that brings together employers, trade unions and the government to find out how we involve workers in new technologies and their adoption and, more importantly, how we deliver training and career advancement for those that need it.
The benefits of AI are already beginning to be seen in many areas of society, none more so than the NHS. Using AI, radiographers, for example, can be about 50% more accurate in their analysis. Private initiatives that bring AI onto the market are also beginning to change things.
Labour’s position is that it’s not simply enough to tackle one or two challenges in isolation. There needs to be a whole lot of joined up thinking that brings our digital future and the role people play in it to the front, centre and back of national policy.
This is something that needs to happen right now – not a few years down the line when we are struggling to keep up with the changes. We’re already lagging behind many other countries in the world and there seems to be no sign from the Conservative government that things are going to change.
That’s one reason why Labour have already begun to look at the possibilities and create a robust and achievable digital strategy for the foreseeable future.
That began with shadow digital minister Liam Byrne’s launch of the People’s Plan this year. It not only seeks to explore how we cope with the fast changing job environment but how we introduce faster broadband and develop the infrastructure that helps the UK thrive in the modern digital world. And it gets you involved with what those future plans are.
The future according to Byrne needs to be both bold and imaginative:
“We’ll transform the digital skills base, creating an innovation nation with the greatest proportion of high-skilled jobs in the OECD, where working people are able to re-skill with free, life-long education in further education colleges. But, crucially, we’ll draw on the best ideas in the world to help get digital policy right – and that means driving forward our digital democracy.”
We underestimate the potential damage that can be done to the UK by not developing a strong and meaningful digital strategy that works for the many, not just the few. AI may well scare some people and make their future uncertain. With the right plans in place, however, it should see the UK thrive in the global marketplace and become the envy of the world.