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Automation: Friend or Foe?

By Ellis Garamszegi |

Automation will revolutionize our society by drastically increasing efficiency and yield, but it will also render many low-skilled human roles redundant. Whether or not this is something to fear, or an opportunity to embrace, is a contentious topic.

There are numerous ‘dull’ jobs that exist which many people must work. However, these roles may not inspire much passion in those required to do them, in which case automation could be viewed as a positive development. Technological advances bring with them plenty of opportunities, one of which is the chance to ask ourselves more fundamental questions of what appeals to us. What do we want living in a rich, prosperous modern society to entail?

We should question what effect work for work’s sake in monotonous and soul-destroying jobs has on mental health, for example. This leads us to one of the benefits of automation – a shorter working week. With machines capable of working 24/7, there will be less pressure in goods and service industries to burden workers with ever-increasing hours to meet targets, alleviating strain on employee welfare. The roles of many workers will simply evolve; machines still need to be kept running, and this will be a job for an army of IT specialists. “Robots will operate 24/7 and won’t take breaks but they still need to be managed to make sure they are working at an optimum level”, says Paul Donaldson, UK automation practice lead at Alsbridge, to HR Magazine. “Understanding the capabilities of this new workforce and ensuring they work in conjunction with your existing teams is a key activity for HR.”

Changes to the nature of work bring with it a greater chance of innovation. It seems logical that employees, once freed from the execution of routine tasks, will have more capacity for creativity and the generation of ideas. Technology has already made huge inroads into sectors such as manufacturing. Companies in this industry, along with retail and transport firms, are the most likely to be keeping an eye on where advances in automated technology might take them. But many other sectors have yet to escalate this to the top of their watch-lists. To speculate about what jobs will be affected by automation in the future is tough; what is perhaps easier is to highlight careers in which humans will likely always be required; politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, ‘creatives’, emergency medical staff (GPs are already affected by automation) and professional athletes seem safe bets. Robots performing these roles seems somewhat far-fetched and you do not have to be a sci-fi buff to imagine how problematic it could prove (think Robocop).

A criticism from those who are wary of automation is that we really don’t know where this could all end up. In his book The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, Martin Ford illustrates the concept of Moore’s Law. He describes a car that starts at 5mph and doubles in speed every minute. “In the twenty-eighth minute you would travel more than 11 million miles,” he explains. “Five minutes or so at that speed would get you to Mars. That, in a nutshell, is where information technology stands today, relative to when the first primitive integrated circuits started plodding along in the late 1950s.”

Whether friend or foe is ultimately irrelevant – these changes are coming, and automation is sure to have to have profound consequences for our way of life. What can be done to make it more viable?

What is largely at risk is further disenfranchisement of the working class, with large swathes of unemployed and displaced citizens creating socio-economic unrest. This potential mass unemployment is a very real threat, and our traditional model of working to get paid to be able to live may well need revising.

One solution is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is simply the idea that everyone in our society has a right to a minimal income, paid for by the state. Unconditionally set at a subsistence level, it would take the place of unemployment and other conditional benefits, and enhance effective freedom. This could bring profound social changes.

2015 saw the Green party commit to a basic income scheme, putting the policy firmly on the table. 2018 saw Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledge a pilot scheme, with a basic income set to be provided to small geographical areas of Scotland in the next Labour manifesto. This is not a utopian, left-wing proposal though; UBI has long had advocates from across the political spectrum. Libertarians on the right see UBI as a logical outcome from the perspective that it provides real freedom for all. Noteworthy proponents include Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, the Adam Smith Institute, and Milton Friedman.

A basic income could become a right by virtue of citizenship, as opposed to the means-tested welfare state and the obvious issues the current system creates. The principles and practicalities of this revolutionary idea are sound, and many economists across the world understand UBI as an inevitability. The question is when? The faster automation advances, the more likely we are to see UBI in the mainstream. Though a radical policy idea, automation too will be revolutionary, already being dubbed ‘the third industrial revolution’. Governments must be ready to adapt and learn. Though full of potential for realising a truly free society, automation will require adequate policy changes in response if we are to avoid mass fallout. We could well be on the edge of an even more rapidly changing world.