The future of work

Could automation be positive?

Do you ever wonder about how advances in technology are changing the way we live and work? If you do, then you are certainly not alone. According to auditor PwC’s recent Workforce of the Future report, 37 per cent of us are concerned we might lose our jobs to automation. Is this concern justified? What should we do to ensure we can survive in the modern workplace?

Future is unknown

Professor Feng Li is Chair of Information Management at Cass Business School. He says it can be easy to overplay the predicted impact of automation because we simply don’t know what will happen.

“We should be cautious when we predict the future of work with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new technologies,” says Feng. “They may take a long time to materialise and may eventually do so in different ways from how we imagine.”

Feng compares the debate on automation today to that concerning teleworking in the 1970s, when commentators predicted that workers wouldn’t need to commute to work as information could be sent to them electronically.

“The notion of teleworking never really took off. While many of us enjoy working flexibly and can do many tasks effectively from home, we still come to the office and get together with colleagues regularly. Work is not just what we do, but also where we go and who we go with.”

Analysis by the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, found the jobs that are at most risk of disappearing include telemarketing callers, data entry clerks, insurance underwriters and legal secretaries. Those least at risk of losing their jobs are those who use a combination of strong cognitive ability and soft personal skills such as therapists, choreographers, HR managers and dentists.

Automation may create new jobs

Feng says that while some jobs will disappear, automation will create new jobs.

“There is no doubt some existing jobs will go, but new jobs will be created in both high-skilled and low-skilled areas. It is too early to predict whether new jobs will compensate for job losses from automation but there will definitely be a skill mismatch between the skills of people who lose their jobs and the skills required by new jobs.”

As well as concerns about job losses and the struggle for workers to adapt, there are real concerns that automation may lead to declining pay and conditions for workers.

“Automation could be a positive development if it is directed in a liberating way. Unfortunately, the history of automation in industry has tended toward deskilling the workforce, lowering pay and eroding conditions,” says Professor Peter Fleming, Professor of Business and Society at Cass.

Automation less of a threat than the 'gig economy'

Peter says automation poses less of a threat than the rise of the ‘gig economy’ and insecure work.

“Automation is not the biggest threat because how it is deployed (and with what effects) is not inevitable or inherent in the technology itself. The real threat comes from unfair employment policies pursued by governments and firms, the politics and power, if you like. That has been the major driver behind the rise of insecure work.”

Dr Tarek Besold is Lecturer in Data Science in the Department of Computer Science at City, University of London. He supports Peter’s and Feng’s views and thinks people often overestimate the possibilities that AI and related technologies offer.

“While we have seen recent impressive advances in several areas of AI research, the resulting approaches and implemented systems are still very far from exhibiting anything remotely similar to actual intelligence. While robots may excel in certain clearly defined tasks in specific domains, they lack the capacity to operate in a domain-general or taskindependent manner, making them ‘digital idiot savants’.”

Future is in human-machine collaborations

Instead of envisioning a replacement of human labour through AI systems and robot workers, Tarek sees the future in a growing number of human-machine collaborations which combine and augment the cognitive flexibility and robustness of humans with the precision and speed of computational systems.

“While certain strongly repetitive, mechanical jobs might indeed eventually be automated, for most other roles I see great promise in combining AI assistants with human employees. The former can take over standardised routine duties, allowing the latter to focus on more complex, less frequent or somewhat novel tasks.”

Everyone needs to play their part

Feng says education and training will be crucial to smooth the transition for those affected by automation and that Government, policymakers and employers need to play their part.

“There will be winners and losers, with a painful change for some workers, particularly those who do not already have digital skills. The Government and employers need to start thinking now about policies to help those affected.”

Peter agrees with Feng that upskilling and training are crucial for workers as they prepare to navigate the new world of work. He recommends that workers join together to reject any potential negative effects of automation.

“Skill is central, along with higher cognitive abilities that are scarce and industry is heavily reliant on. But workers should also contribute to mobilising a collective voice through professional associations and unions to push back on the possible disempowering deployment of automation. We don’t really have a great deal of power if we act simply as individuals.”

With additional reporting by John Stevenson.

This article first appeared in City News, the staff magazine of City, University of London.

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