The robots are not coming for your job (probably)

Dubai's robot policeman © Getty Images
We have nothing to fear from our new robot overlords

One of the questions I am asked most often at the moment comes from worried parents. It isn’t about house prices; it is about jobs: will their children ever be able to get one – or will the robots have nabbed the lot?

I can’t find it in myself to worry about this too much on the basis that society has regular panic attacks in about machines taking over from men and hell resulting (this was, of course, one of the core ideas in Marx’s Das Kapital).

However, machines have been taking over from men on a very regular basis for the last few hundred years and the result has generally been pretty good. As fast as milkmen, telephone operators, textile workers, farmworkers, blacksmiths and supermarket till operators have seen their jobs disappear, new jobs have popped up to replace them.

The UK is about as close to full employment as it gets and a reasonable number of the nastiest and most boring jobs of the past no longer have to be done by actual people. Both of these are good things.

It is also worth noting that if robots were really taking over as fast as many fear, we would be seeing fast-rising productivity (with the help of a crew of robots, each human worker should be able to produce more in an hour than without them).

This also isn’t the first time that machines have taken over the work of the highly skilled/professional. Sure, this time they are after the world’s lawyers, accountants, data processors and doctors. But the textile workers of 19th century England were very highly skilled too. And just think what the calculator did to the world’s mathematicians.

It seems, says Jonathan Allum of SMBC Nikko, that commentators are once again falling  victim to a version of the Lump of Labour Fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done that can be shared out so as to create more or fewer jobs. This isn’t how economies work.

Instead, a ready supply of labour tends to play a role in creating demand for labour: how else to explain the fact that 19% of UK workers are one way or another employed in the health and restaurant sector, or that the number of jobs in transport and storage just keeps rising.

It is also hard to imagine that this won’t keep happening – that new sources of jobs won’t appear as old ones disappear. Some of the jobs our children might end up in are as impossible to predict as app developer was 30 years ago; a barista was 40 years ago; a nanotechnologist or phone screen repair person was a decade ago; or an Instagram star was a mere five years ago.

But others will simply be better versions of jobs we have today. The fastest growing occupations in the West are in areas such as healthcare, therapy, hospitality and the like – all areas, as Allum points out in which robots, unlike humans, are “singularly ill equipped” to help.

The same probably goes for teaching, personal fitness training (can you be motivated by a robot?) fashion (you want a robot helping you decide what looks nice?) and even things such as dentistry (we might be OK with robot heart surgery but I suspect dental hygiene is a different matter).

Robots will change the workplace. But history is telling you pretty clearly that your kids will still be working for a living even as they do.

  • kidmugsy

    “you want a robot helping you decide what looks nice?”

    A robot would be particularly well equipped to answer “Does my bum look big in this?”

  • Kieron Flynn

    I’m not sure that those scenarios of the past (textile mills etc) will be necessarily repeated in the future.

    Those jobs that farmhands, mill workers etc lost did get replaced by other sometimes much higher value/safer jobs which people then took on. The issue for the future is that A.I and then ‘robots’ (aka some kind of multi functional mechanised entity maybe in vagely human form) will take jobs initially, but then any NEW jobs would then also probably be better/cheaper done by those AI algorithms in the short term, and then robots in the medium.

    I am a computer developer and the reason that society have not noticed this yet is due to the fact that the technology is only just now on the cusp. It is a standing joke in IT that AI is always ’20 years away’. Real A.I is that or probably more, A.I. that is functional enough to do many jobs currently done by humans is much closer indeed.

    Taxi divers/Lorry drivers will be first, with probably my own job not that far behind.

    The only brakes on this that I can see are peoples general preference for interacting with other humans (hospitality trade etc). More worringly however is the cyber security side. Car manufacturers for instance will want to perform software updates wirelessly, not at a few more secure fixed cabled locations as it is more convenient for the user and cheaper for them. Imagine if some ‘script kiddie’ hacked a car manufacturers infrastructure resulting in an update getting sent out where all vehicles perform a sharp right turn at 3pm, motorway and all….

    Ultimately though the above will probably be resolved and either I am wrong and many new currently unforeseeable jobs will be invented that humans are better suited to, or many people in a wide range of job types will be very replaceable by something that works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and never takes holidays…

    • Merryn

      I think you are right on lots of this but note again the Lump of Labour Fallacy. Every generation has the same failure of imagination about the future of work/human skills. And everyone is surprised by the appearance of hitherto unimagined jobs/occupations. It is also worth stepping back and seeing just how far we have already gone down the path of taking leisure/letting machines do the work. Note falling labour participation rates and the rise of part time work – all enabled by a massive system of income redistribution.

  • Banst

    I think this article ignores that last performance is not a guarantee of future performance. In the past machines took a long time to develop or improve, they were doing very narrow tasks. Broad AI could be a totally different story. If singularity is reached – that is machines become as intelligent as humans – yet another story. Might be worth no notice that horse population declines four-fold since Victorian time, and particular breeds declined 50 fold in just 15 year from 1900 to 1915….

  • Sandwichman

    No, the robots are not coming for your jobs. They are coming for your disposable time. Instead of working less, you’ll be working more. Hurrah! But don’t worry, you’ll get paid –for some of it. Not all of it, of course. What do you think this is? A charity?