Beware the rise of the machines

From supermarkets with multiple self-checkouts, to borrowing books from libraries without the need for a librarian, it’s clear that automation is upon us. Society won’t stop the advance of technology, but there are questions to be answered before we become overly reliant on the use of machines in our everyday lives.

Last year, a report published by Deloitte and the University of Oxford estimated that up to 10 million British jobs (around a third of the whole UK workforce) could be lost to machines in the next 20 years. In London alone, automation has already replaced over 65% of librarians and almost half of all secretarial jobs since 2001.

Automation often replaces the jobs of factory workers, clerical staff and those in support positions – jobs deemed vital to business operations but considered repetitive and low-skilled. People earning less than £30,000 are five times more likely to be replaced than those earning over £100,000, which shows these technological “advances” will have a disproportionately large effect on the poorest people in society.

This issue is not unique to the UK. Later this year, Japan is opening the world’s first hotel staffed by robots. A total of just ten robots will greet guests, carry luggage and clean the 72 rooms with little to no human intervention at any point. This is not a novelty hotel created to attract tourists; it aims to pave the way for many more. What will become of the hotel workers replaced by machines?

The good news is that as technology advances, it creates new jobs in areas which may not exist today. The engineering sector will likely see a jobs boon, as maintenance is required on the increasingly complex machines with which we surround ourselves. However, this could mean that higher levels of education will be needed to perform straightforward jobs. Where mechanics could once fix a machine with little more than a spanner and some oil, repairing modern machinery will probably require a university level education in a subject such as electrical engineering.

Science, engineering and computing jobs are considered the safest as these are the sectors that will be at the forefront of developing new machines. Jobs in law, the arts, media, management and financial services are also thought to be safe due to the need for some level of human experience, imagination and expertise; features that are difficult to program into a computer. The real issue surrounding automation is not that machines are becoming more sophisticated in the workplace, but that low-skilled jobs are being replaced much more quickly than new jobs are being created.

The prevalence of automation in the workplace goes hand in hand with the development of the machines themselves and, in particular, the progress scientists have made in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). While some jobs may be safe from automation, people themselves may not be.

Artificial intelligence gives machines the ability to operate without human control, use basic learning techniques to become more efficient and to make their own decisions on the best way to carry out an assigned task. People have worried about AI since its invention. In the 1950s, the concept of a “technological singularity” was created which refers to some point in the future when machines will become more advanced than humans. This is the event to which Stephen Hawking was referring to when he spoke of artificial intelligence that “could spell the end of the human race”. Hawking has been a vocal proponent of heavy regulations on the development of AI, and has gained the support of many scientists and several big technological names, such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates. It is hoped that through acknowledging these issues now, regulations can help to avoid the potential negative consequences of AI before it becomes a reality.

One subject set to become even more controversial through AI is the use of combat drones in warfare. Military forces around the world are testing the idea of autonomous drones, which are piloted by artificially intelligent software and can choose targets to attack without the need for human intervention. Automation will raise interesting ethical points in the future, such as the accountability for mistakes made by an artificially intelligent machine, particularly if that leads to human injury or death.

While technological advancement mustn’t stop, we must question if it should be limited, and what would become of the workers whose jobs are replaced by technology before machines are integrated into every level of society.

Evan Canwell

Image: Shutterstock

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