Author Mark Richards

Some people believe that robots and artificial intelligence will have a devastating impact on our lives, wiping out millions of jobs. Others see a much brighter future for man and machine. Who is right? And what does it mean for the future of employment?

Tumbleweed blew along what had once been the high street. “Look,” the old man said. “That’s where your Grandma used to work.”

The future

Copyright Eric Jones


“What did she do, Grandad?”

“She worked in what we used to call HR. Human Resources: choosing who to employ. But then they

found that artificial intelligence could do it better. So she lost her job. More or less the same time that a robot took my job.”

“Is that why my dad doesn’t work, Grandad?”

“Yeah. Your dad had followed me into the car plant. But the robots could do everything better, quicker, more cheaply. And they never needed a holiday.”

“Will I ever have a job, Grandad?”

The old man looked at his grandson. And slowly shook his head…

Will that scene really be the future?

If your glass is half-empty, that is the dystopian future that awaits us – and not very far into the future. The middle classes rendered irrelevant by artificial intelligence, anyone who used to manufacture anything replaced by a robot. The only people who will have jobs are the entertainers: the writers, the singers, the actors.

…Or maybe not. It already looks like robots will be replacing human ‘actors’ in Disneyland – hopefully, it does not go the same way as Westworld – and advances in digital technology could mean curtains for today’s film stars. After all, Peter Cushing (aka Grand Moff Tarkin) died in 1994: that did not stop him appearing in 2016’s Star Wars: Rogue One.

A new study: a new hope

Maybe the future is not so bleak. A new study has come out which offers a rather more optimistic view of the future. The study, done by global education company Pearson, Nesta, the innovation foundation and the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University has suggested that the future may not be quite so grim.

The study suggests that the majority of current jobs will still be in existence by 2030 and – even more optimistically – one in 10 of us will see an increase in demand for our services.

By Dllu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia CommonsJobs in the creative, design, digital and engineering sectors are likely to thrive, as well as careers relating to health, education and other areas in the public sector. So what sectors will be under threat? The study pointed to transport and manufacturing as areas where jobs will be lost: many people reading this will already have seen the footage of a driverless truck delivering 50,000 cans of Budweiser.

Optimistically, the study suggested that only one in five jobs were at risk from robots and AI. But wait a minute: there are currently over 30 million people employed in the UK. If one in five of those jobs were to go then that is six million unemployed people: that would have a catastrophic impact on government finance – less tax in, more benefits going out – before we consider the human and social costs of such widespread unemployment.

He would say that, wouldn’t he?

According to Pearson boss John Fallon, “the future is brighter than conventional wisdom suggests. It is not going to be human versus machine, but rather human and machine.”

“It is clear that technology is changing the global economy and labour markets,” he added. “But we retain the power to control our destiny. We must update our education systems to make sure that teachers have the right tools to help children succeed in the workforce of tomorrow.”

These are warm words – but it is the boss of an education company saying that we need to invest more money in education. The World Economic Forum recently published a report outlining the key skills that will be needed in the workplace in 2020. The top five were complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others. And yet if you go into schools this morning you will still find pupils learning about ox-bow lakes and Henry VIII’s wives. I am not saying that the fate of Anne Boleyn is unimportant: I am saying that it is available on Wikipedia and every teenager knows that.

Ten years ago jobs like social media manager or inbound marketing director did not exist: ten years from now people will be doing jobs we have not even thought about yet. Our education system needs to change rapidly to reflect that, or we risk being left behind.

Here come the robots

John Cryan, the boss of Deutsche Bank recently warned of the growing threat that robots will pose to bankers. He told a conference in Frankfurt, “In our banks we have people behaving like robots, doing mechanical things. Tomorrow we’re going to have robots behaving like people.”

I realise that you may find it difficult to express sympathy for soon-to-be-unemployed bankers, even on a Friday morning, but the more robots ‘behave like people’ the more they will pose a threat to jobs. You only have to look at the rapid development of ‘chatbots’ to see the direction we are moving in.

It is very easy to get depressed. Thanks to rapid advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing and inexpensive computing power, jobs that were previously considered unlikely candidates for automation have suddenly become vulnerable. Ten years ago researchers thought the complexity of driving a car through traffic would always be beyond AI and computers: now virtually every car maker – and companies like Apple – is working on a driverless car.

If you have any tears left after weeping for the bankers, the bad news is that lawyers could also go the same way. Free service DoNotPay has overturned over $4m in parking fines in just 21 months. Incredibly, the creator of DoNotPay is just 19 years old – Joshua Browder, a second-year student at Stanford University – and he sees parking fees as simply the tip of a legal iceberg.

It could be goodbye from me…

Did I say the writers would be safe in the future?

Regrettably, I will be going the same way. AI bots created by companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already producing business and sports stories for clients like Forbes. Founder of Narrative Science, Kris Hammond, has predicted that 90% of all journalism will be computerised by 2030.

Never mind: it’s the weekend – at least I can look forward to the football. Then again, the way my team is playing replacing the midfield with robots might not be a bad idea…

Hang on: there might be something in that. Could robots replace cricketers? How about an England all-rounder programmed to say, “Ten o’clock? Goodness me, I really should be in bed with a mug of cocoa…”