The era of automatons is already well underway. But legislation has not adjusted to this new reality – it needs to be re-examined and made fit for purpose.
More and more companies in the UK are using automatons to cut costs and increase efficiency. Supermarket and other shops employ self-service checkouts, where you scan and bag your own items as the machine takes payment. In some shops, there are no human-operated tills remaining.
Some airports have almost entirely replaced their customer-facing workforce with self-service machines for passport control, check-in and baggage drop. There is, it seems, no real need for human interaction in many of these processes – except, perhaps, to explain usage or correct malfunctions.
And this is just the beginning. Automation is estimated to take over 30% of tasks in 60% of industries, or 15 million UK jobs, by 2030. It is difficult to imagine an industry that will not want to make use of automated technology. A recent Oxford University study lists the jobs most likely to be targeted, starting with telemarketers, cashiers and fast-food chefs. Driverless cars are set to replace drivers of forklifts, taxis, delivery vans, mowers and harvesters.
With these transformations, are we doing enough to ensure that technology works for the overall good? In the last century, pundits foresaw that labour-saving devices would make our lives easier and reduce the number of hours we had to work. Instead, working hours have increased and, with the new capacity for multitasking, our jobs may well be more stressful.
Without adequate safeguards, increased automation could result in reduced employment, especially among the lowest paid, reducing tax revenues and further depleting services while also reducing opportunities for human interaction.
If, however, we embrace and prepare for these changes, reinforcing our social ideals through new legislation, the advantages of new technology could easily outweigh the losses.
If new technologies boost productivity and generate additional employment elsewhere, the jobs will not simply disappear. Automation could yet present a marvellous opportunity to eliminate low-paid, repetitive drudgery, leaving human beings free to focus on work that is more rewarding and creative.
For this, we need to find some answers. Should we, for example, be pushing for taxes on the use of robots? Will the average person have the necessary skillset to secure employment as the market changes? How can education better prepare children for this new reality? What other impacts on human society can we foresee, and mitigate?
I can’t provide the answers to these questions, but I can say that continuing ‘business as usual’ is not good enough. Incentivising subjects such as science and IT – as in the current Budget – without considering how to promote the uniquely human skills of emotional intelligence, genuine creativity and critical thinking that will complement technology, borders on negligence.
We need to develop strategies to prevent automation from being used simply to swell the profit margins of big businesses. The time has come to start thinking very hard about forming legislation and strategies to make automation enhance human labour rather than to replace it – for the benefit of the many, not the few.