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A very human race

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review posed an important question. ‘Will robots and software replace most human workers?’ Are we in the age of the robot? And, if so, what does it mean for our future, and that of the next generation? Is the race against the robots one we can win?

The age of the robots? Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

There is much debate about the impact that technology will have in the coming years. With more of us becoming aware of the Internet of Things, we might welcome the promise of smart devices around the home making our lives more organised – no more rushing back to the shop for a vital, but forgotten, item. But what about our jobs? How will increasing automation – and intelligent technologies – affect how we make our living?

The answer to MIT Tech Review’s question was succinct: ‘No one knows’. The impact of technology on jobs today is hard to measure – not least because technology has been applied inconsistently within different industries and in different countries. And if we can’t measure the impact today, it makes it nigh on impossible to make any sensible predictions for the future.

Of course, this doesn’t stop people from trying! Gartner, the information technology research and advisory company, predicts that up to a third of jobs will be replaced by robots, automation and smart devices by 2025. For manufacturing, robots could be performing around a quarter of all tasks worldwide, also by 2025 (Boston Consulting Group). But does this mean fewer jobs? Or simply jobs of a different nature?

Again, no one knows the answer. It is true that the nature of jobs is changing. Many may disappear. We all know that many routine tasks can now be done more efficiently using technology. What is less clear is how this affects other types of work. Helpfully, the BBC has recently published its list of jobs that will be the first to go, including taxi drivers, journalists, cocktail makers and doctors. And if you are worried about your own job, you can test out the likelihood that you’ll be replaced by a machine: try out Nesta's quiz to see how your job stands up.

So, in the midst of this uncertainty, we need to find ways to help our global society deal with a future that promises to be heavy on technology yet light on employment.

There will obviously be those in society who will reap the financial rewards of this growing technology. However, for the majority of people this is unlikely to be the case. Many economists are revisiting the idea that the solution may be a guaranteed minimum income, as a way to address the increasing inequality and polarisation that such a future signals. But what will this mean for the lives of the people whose jobs are most at risk ? Data from the last 50 years – since computers first started to enter the world of work – already shows that those in technology-vulnerable job roles have become disengaged and feel disenfranchised.

The solution? For me, our focus needs to be on education. Educating our children to have the skills that will be needed in the future – creativity, critical analysis, the ability to deal with rapid change, teamwork, cooperation and collaboration – in ways that encourage them to remain engaged with society. This means moving away from traditional approaches of a passive education to one where learners are active participants in real problem-solving tasks, guided by a talented educator and enabled by technology. We need to teach our kids the skills they need to work in teams that combine humans and robots, each adding value in ways that the other can’t.

As Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT, has put it, we must learn to race with the machines, not against them.


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