By Mark Richards.

Is your job at risk from AI, robotics and automation? Estimates of the number of jobs at risk vary widely, from 800m worldwide to none at all. Yes, some jobs will undoubtedly be lost – but the evidence from Japan suggests that there is still hope for us humans…

Over the last 18 months, we have written about the potential impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on our lives two or three times. On Monday we asked a simple question: with ‘bots’ (web robots) increasingly creating and distributing stories, how much longer would you be able to trust the news you read?

But this morning we are concerned with jobs – and over the last 18 months, the estimated impact of AI and robotics has varied widely.

The management consultants say it is time to panic…

Back in November 2017 – you will remember those days: Brexit negotiations were ‘making progress’ and everything was ‘on track’ – we wrote about a report from management consultants McKinsey. It was nothing if not alarmist.

The report forecast that up to 800m jobs worldwide would be lost by 2030, thanks to robotics, AI and automation. The study of 46 countries and 800 occupations predicted that up to one-fifth of the global workforce would be affected, with one in three workers in countries like Germany and the US needing to retrain for other jobs.

Poorer countries, with less money to invest in automation, would be less badly affected, but AI and robotics would have a devastating effect on richer countries – with machine operators and those in the food industry hit hardest.

Other professions coming under pressure would be mortgage brokers, accountants and back-office staff – but those jobs that required human interaction such as doctors, teachers and bartenders would be ‘less prone to automation.’ Gardeners, plumbers and care workers can also afford not to worry about AI, apparently…

The ONS adds to the gloom

Fast forward to 2019 – when no-one in their right mind could claim that the Brexit talks were ‘making progress – and we see that one in three figure repeated, with a study from the Office for National Statistics suggesting that one-in-three jobs in the City of London could be at risk. Like McKinsey’s study, the ONS suggests that jobs in accountancy, financial services and some legal work are especially vulnerable – although again, the most vulnerable sector is the food industry.

Taking the country as a whole the ONS sees 1.5m jobs being at risk. They expect the potential job losses to impact the female workforce especially hard, with 70% of high-risk jobs being held by women. Younger people are also likely to be impacted. Apparently, the best age to avoid competition from robots and AI is between 35 and 39. That is me done for then…

Even McDonald’s are on board the bot train

“Would you Like a Large Bot With That?”

Just how far-reaching AI could be can be seen by McDonald’s decision to embrace it. Yes, that McDonald’s. Burger and fries McDonald’s.

The Golden Arches have just shelled out $300m (£227m) for an Israeli tech start-up firm which automatically changes menus based on weather, time of day and traffic. At which point you say, ‘Hang on, time of day? Surely you don’t need to pay $300m to be told to take the breakfast menu off at 3 in the afternoon?’ Or to look outside the door and say, ‘Hey, Chuck, 80 degrees out there. Maybe a few salads on the menu?’

Clearly, it is more sophisticated than that. Or perhaps not. “It [the AI] can know times of day and it can know the weather,” said McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook. The ultimate aim, he said, was to “provide a much more personalised experience” and to suggest additional items based on the initial order – if you like, the McDonald’s equivalent of Amazon’s ‘customers who bought X also bought Y.’

Call me cynical, but I still think it is paying a lot to replace common sense and experience…

The good news from Japan

But do not despair just yet. Back in January we reported on the hotel in Japan which had got rid of those useless humans – who needed paying, wanted to go on holiday and were inconveniently ill – and replaced them with robots.

The Henn na chain in Japan – the name apparently translates as ‘weird’ and looking at the Tokyo receptionists you can see that – announced the arrival of robots in its hotels with great fanfare. They would carry your bags up to your room, scan passports and do all the jobs that, frankly, really did not need a human any more.

Unfortunately for progress the Nagasaki hotel, which had 243 robots on its staff, has now fired more than half of them. The reason? They created more work than they saved. The robot virtual assistants could not answer guests’ questions, the robo-receptionist could not copy passports and the automated luggage carriers kept getting stuck – all needing one of those wretched humans to sort the problem out. One guest even complained that he was constantly woken up by the robot in his room asking what it could do to help. He had triggered it by snoring too loudly…

The only jobs the robots destroyed were their own. And if they can make that sort of mess of scanning your passport, what sort of damage could they do to a burger and fries…

Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation will unquestionably destroy some jobs. That is the inevitable result of progress: the nature of jobs has always changed with technological changes. Yes, the emergence of the car industry did untold damage to the horse-and-buggy economy:  but blacksmiths, farriers and saddle-makers gave way to mechanics, paint sprayers and panel beaters.

It is easy to think that machines will function perfectly. They will not – and it is not just in Japanese hotels. Does anyone remember the robot security guard that drowned itself? And when the machines malfunction, they will need fixing. They will need the ‘not so dispensable after all’ humans…