Is R2D2 going to take your job?

Posted on: June 22nd, 2017

Employees of the future: Human or Robot?

It seems that wherever you go these days there is a fear that Artificial Intelligence will take over – that taxis will drive themselves, lorries will move in perfect driverless convoys and factories will have a robot for each and every part of the production line. As a result of this automation there is the worry that jobs will disappear and unemployment will surge, but is this a valid fear?

An old concern, not a new one

This is not the first time that fear of the new has led to an assumption that jobs will be lost. During the industrial revolution, the creation of mechanical sewing machines and the production line brought protests across the UK as workers feared the loss of jobs.

Between 1871 and 2011 there was a 95% decline in those working in the agricultural sector and between 1901 and 2011 the number of people washing clothes for a living went from 200,000 to 35,000, with technological advances being key to this change. These changes, however, did not lead to an equivalent increase in unemployment: those people are now just working elsewhere.

A 2015 report by Deloitte found that, while there had been a 57% drop in typists and a 50% drop in company secretaries in the two preceding decades, there had been a 909% rise in nursing auxiliaries and assistants and a 580% increase in teaching and educational support assistants in the same period.

It is the same case elsewhere in the world; according to the U.S.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, every 60 to 90 years approximately half of jobs in the US economy are replaced with new forms of labour. Not lost, but replaced.

The research suggests not

Research from The Manufacturer supports this view. In a report produced this year based on research that took into account more than 1,000 manufacturing professionals, an area more likely than others to suffer job losses due to automation:

  • 63.3% said they had never witnessed job losses as a result of the introduction of robots or automated processes;
  • 36.7% stated that robots had often resulted in job creation within their place of work; and
  • 78.9% felt more should be done to promote the benefits of automation and robotics in the workplace.

Commenting on the results, Steve Barraclough, CEO of the CIEHF, said: “Robots and automation are regularly given a bad name. However, while automation might remove some mundane and repetitive jobs, it also makes a significant contribution to ‘upskilling’ employees, which is often overlooked.” This is very much a positive aspect of AI, its potential to improve efficiency and productivity may enable businesses to invest elsewhere (in training and supporting of staff) and also to grow which is inevitably good for staff. Similarly, PwC’s own study states “the nature of jobs will change rather than disappear.”

So what about the law?

The law is often slow to keep up with changes in the real world and with the advent of AI this is still very much the case. There have been suggestions that legal changes will be necessary to protect human jobs against the rise of the machines. This could include the introduction of human job quotas, the banning of robots from certain industries and the use of “made by human” labels. This is, however, very much theoretical at the moment. At the moment, as long as employers consult and do not break employment laws or contract terms they should have nothing to fear (if you have concerns about the introduction of AI on your workforce, do contact our employment team).

Despite recent delays in implementing new legislation, in part due to the snap election, the current British government has proven itself to be very much in support of allowing AI technologies to develop in the UK, the proposed Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill being a prime example of this. It appears to rightly recognise that this is an area that British business could grow and take advantage of and is more willing to support AI still has a long way to go before we find ourselves face to face with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Attempts to start restricting it at such an early stage will inevitably harm businesses and their employees rather than help them. As research has shown, the focus of the work force shifts and evolves as new opportunities and obstacles arise. The arrival of AI is no different to the appearance of Jethro Tull’s seed drill at the dawn of the agricultural revolution, businesses will adapt and change and so will the roles of their employees. Tech continues to be something we need to embrace rather than fear.

James Kitching is a Solicitor in Coffin Mew’s Corporate team.