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 impact 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 about 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, AI 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 endeavor to ignore the challenges technology brings in much the same way they do with climate change. Jeremy Corbyn had notions of putting “the control of robots in the hands of those who work them” in his post-capitalist future combined with a controversial plan for a robot tax. Too soon to see what Starmer’s views will be.
Ignoring the impact of robotics is crazy
The accountancy giant PwC estimates 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. Online loyalty program company, Rakuten’s research studying shopping habits in the UK shows that 74% of us find shopping online less stressful hence the growth of the huge retail giants, of which Amazon is but one. Online retailers and catalog giants are all becoming increasingly automated in their massive distribution centers.
Amazon is said to use an incredible 100,000 robots overall to move goods around their distribution centers and even the John Lewis center at Milton Keynes is reported to employ 860. Ocado is 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 wholesale and retail trades. 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 of 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 is 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 labor.
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 in technology will also increase Britain’s competitiveness in world markets. It can help companies grow.
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.
Now we have COVID-19 and robotics are going to look even more appealing to employers. No sickness. No health and safety problems. The speed robotics will take over is likely to speed up considerably.
Education and re-education still need 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 huge 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, now more than ever.
You might also like this on customer service and AI which talks about the role that robotics can play in customer service, when it works and when it doesn’t.