Our robot future: better and more unpredictable than we can imagine

If you are worried about the rise of the robots, go out and buy a copy of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain by James Bloodworth. It isn’t the first of its genre, but  even if you have already read Barbara Enhrenreich’s  Nickled and Dimed and Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: LIfe in Low Paid Britain and already know that minimum wage work is all too often very hard and very boring it is worth a skim – just so you have a sense of what hard and boring means today.

Bloodworth worked in an Amazon warehouse, on a construction site, in a call centre and for a care company. The worst, of course, was the warehouse: he writes of walking ten miles a day; of constant physical exhaustion, mental numbness and nasty food; of petty security-related managerial bullying; and of paypackets that always seem to be a little short (more than irritating when your annual salary comes in at under £13,000) Who would want that kind of job? The answer turns out to be not many British people. The warehouse is always hiring and the “mostly eastern Europeans” who work alongside Bloodworth are always amazed he sticks with it.

The good news here is twofold. First, no one is going to have to do this kind of work much longer. Have a quick look at my Instagram account (@moneymerryn) and you will see a clip of an almost fully roboticised warehouse in Japan. There, robots pick up the shelves and deliver them to the packing station. No one walks ten miles a day. Then have a quick Google for agricultural automation (a favourite video of mine this week is the olive-harvesting machine that harvests 300 kilos of olives at a time).

If you aren’t keeping up to date with this stuff you’ll be amazed (and pleased to find that the UK is a leader in agritech). The same goes for construction. It isn’t quite up to skyscrapers yet but here’s a 3D printer making a small house in a day (for $4000).

The upshot is this: care aside, all the crappy jobs Bloodworth quite rightly found unpleasant are on their way out. Not long now, and no one will be making a living “pulling vegetables out of the ground in the sodden fields of Kent”. That’s good news. Very good news. The question, then, is what next? Part of the answer to that is in Bloodworth’s book too.

The huge turnover of staff in the care and the warehouse sectors and the prevalence of non-British workers in them make it clear that minimum-wage workers are already (with more than enough justification) making choices about the work they will and won’t do full time* (“I wouldn’t do that work, I’ll make no bones about it”, one man told Bloodworth). The conversation about a universal basic income should be seen against that background of choice creation.

However the more interesting part of the answer is all about the unknown. Here’s a titbit from a restaurant review by Giles Coren from last weekend’s papers: “A quarter of a century ago, the idea that you might turn up a Clapham side street and find tattooed young people baking bread, curing meat, pickling vegetables and cooking dishes of this quality so focused, so well balanced, so adventurous and hearty, would have been absolutely ridiculous.” The artisan is rising again with the robots.

Can everyone spend the future making lovely pots, pickled veg and bread? Of course not. But Coren’s note is a reminder that, when it comes to the way we might or might not fill our post-robot time, too much forecasting is fruitless.

*217,000 children in the UK live in a household in which no one has ever worked