Robotics has the highest investor to idea ratio of all the emerging technologies. The average deal value is an astounding 28 million dollars. With that sort of money going into the sector, there is little doubt that the effects will implact more and more on our society.
We have seen the use of AI already change the way we live and do business. The companies that thrive are the ones that identify the right initial data, apply the right strategy and while still retaining a human touch. When I talk of sales and customer service, I often cite the increase in our blood pressure levels caused by robotic responses to problems. But for low value and high repetition tasks, A1 and robotics are ideal.
The UK could be a global leader in technology but it is not exactly being helped by politicians. The Tories are habitually averse to anything that threatens the status quo and endeavour to ignore the challenges technology brings in much the same way they do with climate change. Recognition only arrived in the Budget when Mr Hammond deemed it time to recognize the role of Britain in the digital age – and therefore introduce a digital sales levy by 2020. In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn trots out more wild and woolly notions about putting “the control of robots in the hands of those who work them” in his post capitalist future, though rumour does have it that he plans a controversial robot tax.
To ignore the impact robotics will have on our society is nothing short of criminal neglect. PwC estimate that, by 2030, 30% of British jobs will have been taken over by robots. The Bank of England’s estimate last year was that 15 million jobs are at risk. PricewaterhouseCoopers set the figure at 10 million jobs in the next 15 years alone. The numbers are huge. Society as we know it will be changed beyond recognition.
We are already aware of the changes to retail. On line loyalty programme company, Rakuten’s research shows that 74% of us find shopping on line less stressful hence the growth of the huge retail giants, of which Amazon is but one. Online retailers and catalogue giants are all becoming increasing automated in their massive distribution centres. Amazon are said to use an incredible 100,000 robots overall to move goods around their distribution centres and even the John Lewis centre at Milton Keynes is reported to employ 860. Ocado are believed to plan to replace half their staff within the decade, including their plans for driver-less vans.
Over 15% of UK workers are employed in the wholesale and retail trade. Around 7.5% are employed in manufacturing, another key area for increased automation, as are mining, agriculture, transport and logistics. Big employment sectors, all of them certain to have massive job losses.
According to an Oxford university survey, an eclectic mix jobs are 99% certain to be replaced entirely, from insurance underwriters, to watch repairers. They include telemarketers in this group though I have yet to be convinced a call from a robot could talk me into buying anything. But Nestle are using robots to sell within Japanese department stores, just as Californian malls are patrolled by robotic security guards. The first robot farm has been launching in Japan where robots will water, feed and harvest crops while the construction industry is being rocked by 3D printers which enable whole buildings to be constructed in minimal time and with minimal labour.
Lobbyists will argue that robotics releases people from the most tedious work and when more stimulated, these people will contribute to greater productivity. Increased investment into technology will also increase Britain’s competitiveness in world markets. It can help companies grow. We hear much on Amazon’s job losses but it is easy to forget that they now have 500,000 employees in comparison to 20,000 only a decade ago.
There is certainly no doubt that we all stand to gain from robotics in certain fields; medicine in particular be it diagnostics or surgery where robo-surgeons have proved hugely successful and should in time both operate independently and replace humans altogether at some point in the future.
But it is going to be difficult for those who have their lives decimated through job losses to see the positives. Low skilled jobs will be the ones that go first and these positions are often held by those who are already financially struggling. Geographically, it will be swathes of the Midlands and the North which will be the worst and quickest affected rather than the more affluent South.
With politicians taking a head in the sand approach, nothing is being done to help prepare those at risk. The government should be working with specialists in the industry who really understand all the issues, both on ethics and world safety, but also on how to cope with this issue.
Education and re-education needs to be an absolute priority. We know that the benefits system is too busy ticking boxes and shoving people into the quickest available position rather than tackle these issues. But issues they are. We need education at all levels focussed on sustainable skills for sustainable jobs to ensure a society with a sustainable future in this country.