We need to start thinking about how we respond to automation

Roy Amara was a scientist and researcher who thought a lot about the future. Amara’s law says we tend to exaggerate the impact of new technology in the short term but dramatically underestimate its long-term effects. 

 

The internet didn’t put retailers out of business overnight, but over time online delivery will permanently reshape our High Street. Television channels aren’t obsolete because we can watch programmes online, but streaming services may ultimately render terrestrial TV redundant. 

The same is probably true of automation and digitisation: we may not be sharing our homes with robot cleaners this time next year, but over the next decade automation will have a big impact on our lives, transform the world of work and present politicians with some very tough choices. How will the workers of tomorrow earn a decent wage if a huge number of jobs in manufacturing, the financial services and retail are automated? Do we need to respond by dramatically increasing the amount we invest in education and training? 

My colleague John McDonnell has suggested a guaranteed national income may be part of the solution. There are some dramatic predictions about the scale of the job losses that could result from automation. Deloitte says it could put 35% of UK jobs – that’s at least 11mn of them - at risk. Much of this is driven by cost. Robots and automated systems that were prohibitively expensive until recently now cost around the same as a production line worker earns in a single year and they are very easy to maintain. They don’t need holidays and they don’t claim for overtime. 

I believe the consequences of the automation revolution will be as profound and far-reaching as the industrial revolution that shaped our nation, from the town halls and public spaces in our great cities to the railways that created new towns. That doesn’t mean we will be living in a dystopian world in which robots have made millions redundant– they could just as easily carry out the mundane and routine parts of our jobs, freeing us up to do more productive work instead. 

Technological change will bring further unimaginable benefits too, of course. Self-diagnosis could reduce the pressure on the NHS. Operations carried out by machines instead of surgeons would do the same. Automated cars will dramatically reduce the number of accidents on the road. But those same cars could ultimately put haulage firms out of business. 

We need to start thinking about how we respond to automation immediately. It is impossible to predict the future, but the lessons of the past show that if we don’t start trying to understand what it might look, it will be too late to adapt to it by the time it arrives.

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