Hand holding a robotic arm

What will the world look like when robots go to work

What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear that robots will replace 800 million global workers by the year 2030?

Do you see a desolate landscape with gaunt, hollow eyed humans dressed in rags milling around aimlessly, unsure of what to do with their days now that they don’t have a job to go to? Oh, yee of little faith. How many times must we overcome doomsday predictions, economic recessions, industrial revolutions, union strikes and mass lay off’s before we see that we are made of much sterner stuff than we give ourselves credit for.

Time and time again we have demonstrated just what we can achieve when we set our mind to it and if we learn from our history, we could turn the age of automation to our advantage.

1999 Millennium Bug

Let’s take a step back in time to the year 1999 when we couldn’t escape the Millennium Bug speculations that had everyone excited and worried in equal measure. We were warned that when the clocks turned from 31/12/1999 to 01/01/2000 all our computer systems were going to crash. Planes would fall from the sky, banks would collapse and the world would be left in chaos along with many other scary predictions of a similar theme all because software developers had used six digits to signify the date instead of eight.

For those who don’t remember, the issue behind the Millennium Bug was simply that 1st January 1900 was in software terms 01/01/00. There was concern that when the clocks turned over for the year 2000 in the absence of the full year in four digits it would once again become 01/01/00 and our software systems would become confused thinking it was 01/01/1900 and not 01/01/2000.

If we had left the potential issue unchecked then stocks, shares, emergency services, banks, security and, well pretty much everything could have been affected. Do you see the irony here, just 10 years ago we were worried that we would have to cope without automation and technology and now we are concerned that in 10 years we will have too much of it?

The thing is, despite everyone’s doubts, we were ahead of the curve. We were never really going to let it get to the stage where planes were spontaneously falling from the sky. Across the world, organisations and governments acted fast to mitigate the risk wherever possible. Behind the scenes, software technicians, data experts and such like across all industries had spent weeks if not months checking their software for the potential flaws that could occur when the clocks switched over and fixing them.

Thanks to foresight, planning and preventative measures we were able to avoid a crisis and the year 2000 came without a hitch. Our impending job stealing robot issue is a little different in that there is no defined date that we are hurtling towards. With Y2K we could clearly pinpoint that the issue would arise on 1st January 2000, so we knew we had a finite amount of time to rectify the problem. We were also able to identify where the issue would occur, i.e. in software, and so we knew where we needed to focus our attentions. With automation however, there is no dooms day we can mark on the calendar, automation is a gradual process; things will change but they will change slowly.

We can say with some certainty that you are not going to walk into work one day to find Rupert the Robot sat at your desk drinking from your favourite mug and laughing with Sharon from finance over her weekend antics. Nor will an army of robots simultaneously storm workplaces across the country handing out P45’s while escorting workers in their thousands from the premises.

1984 Coal Mines Close

Not all moments in history reassure us of our ability to bounce back after an employment shake up, often these are the moments in time that we look upon and draw future conclusions from. Stepping back to 1984, it is true that coal towns such as Newport in the Welsh valleys are still to this day struggling with the impact that high levels of unemployment and poverty created when the mines closed.

But that is just it, the coal mines closed. They didn’t develop or grow and provide new jobs, they just simply stopped. There was no preparation and no re-skilling ahead of time, in short, we failed to prepare and as a result mass unemployment was unavoidable. While it was mainly men who were made redundant when the mines closed, working women were also affected by the number of men flooding the job market at once. 

Men were more desirable to employers and so they began to take the manufacturing jobs that women had previously filled. This is a great example of how we can move between industries and find alternative means of work when necessary however what is often overlooked is that men were the automation equivalent of the time; they were the robots coming to take jobs from women and yet we overcame.

What did women do when their jobs were being taken by men? They didn’t just give up that’s for sure, they re-skilled, they returned to education, they moved industries and took up different roles, they developed their skills over and over again to ensure they were employable on an equal standing with men at the very least. We need to look back on this strength and resilience and see that we have got through tough times before and we can again, this time with some planning and preparation.

1950’s Alarm clocks displace workers.

Just for fun, let’s go back in time once more. This time to the early 1900’s when the prospect of automation was so very new that the idea of technology taking your job wasn’t really considered a possibility. Did you know that during the industrial revolution you could get a real bona fide job as a Knocker Up? It’s true, a Knocker Up’s job was to walk through the streets waking up shift workers by tapping on their windows with a long stick.

The development of the alarm clock soon led to this role becoming entirely obsolete by around 1950’s. Out of a necessity to earn a living, put food on the table and clothing on their backs they were forced to turn their hand to other types of work. They learned a new skill, started a new business or went to work in the factories taking on the roles that automation was creating. 

Time and time again we have shown that we know what to do when we are faced with problems, we know how to take advantage and draw the very best from a situation, so when I hear that robots will be working on our behalf, I for one don’t see a desolate landscape, I see the early promise of a beautiful eutopia that is yet to be.

Automated Eutopia.

In my ideal automated world not too many years from now, we would have seamlessly integrated automation into our workplaces and workers will be blissfully enjoying their new better paid, less physically taxing, less repetitive more satisfying jobs. Many will have re-skilled and found new careers and some bright new stars will be working on our innovations and technological developments.

Most importantly we will have developed and innovated enough to use Artificial Intelligence in our global decision making.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) could easily asses every decision far beyond what we are capable of. They could consider the implications for both now and the future, working towards the greater good with a focus on equality, sustainability and longevity. AI would no doubt have the ability to work out what is better for the long-term security of our planet, our economy and our lives.

Perhaps I am seeing things through rose tinted glasses, but this is what I see when I hear of robots, automation and Artificial Intelligence in our workplaces. I cross my fingers and hold out hope that we see the wisdom in embracing automation and Artificial Intelligence on a wider scale, that we are well prepared for the changing times to come and that nothing takes us by surprise.

Most of all, I hope I am around to see the use of decision-making robots in global affairs.

  • Click here for 5 ways that you can prepare for an automated future 
  • Click here for 3 great ways you can upskill to make sure you are robot ready. 
  • If you think that perhaps a career change is in order, then check out this post providing a heap of alternative job ideas for warehouse workers.

Reference:

Science Direct. Resource shocks, employment, and gender: Evidence from the collapse of the UK coal industry. March 2018 [Internet]

 

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