As the leading US economist Tyler Cowen puts it, machines aren’t only replacing human brawn. As they become more advanced, they’re increasingly replacing human brains. Or to put it another way: if the most precarious place to be working in the British economy in the 1970s and 80s was as a blue collar worker in a factory, today it’s the kind of white collar job occupied by the middle classes.
According to Oxford University academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, in the years ahead, millions of jobs in sectors such as accounting and auditing will be replaced with machines that can so the same tasks much more cheaply and effectively than human workers – without requiring salaries, holidays or sick pay – while administrators, paralegals and bank clerks will also be hit hard.
Of course, the technology revolution is not just destroying jobs – it’s creating huge numbers of new ones too, especially in areas like IT and the creative industries. And the good news is that the new jobs being created pay an average of £10,000 a year more than the jobs being lost to automation. But a fifty something whose job is replaced by software doesn’t necessarily have the right skills to find employment in the brave new world of artificial intelligence and robotics.
There’s a parallel here with the 1980s – pro-market reforms made the economy as a whole larger and more dynamic, but entire communities were left behind. The same could easily happen again, which would be a tragedy.
Business thinker Geoff Colvin, in his new book, Humans are Underrated, argues that there are tasks we will always want humans to carry out, whether providing leadership or working in teams – McAfee and Brynolfsson agree, suggesting that we need to help people develop skills that machines are still relatively bad at, such as creativity, empathy and problem-solving.
You can find out more about the investigation here