The past few years have seen a tremendous amount of progress made in robotics and AI, and it seems at times as though the industry has largely been left to regulate itself, as government has struggled to match the pace of movement in the sector.
We’ve seen, for instance, the Partnership on AI created by a cohort of tech companies, including IBM, Microsoft and DeepMind. The group was created to “study and formulate best practices on AI technologies, to advance the public’s understanding of AI, and to serve as an open platform for discussion and engagement about AI and its influences on people and society.”
The British government have finally mustered a response of their own, with a recent report on robotics and AI, and their implications for society.
The report, from the Science and Technology Committee, evolved out of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group that was formed in 2014 to examine technology growth in the field. Whilst it makes a number of recommendations around ethics and industrial development, for me, the most interesting aspect was around skills and jobs.
Jobs in an AI world
It’s a topic I’ve touched on a number of times previously, as the last few years have seen a number of predictions around the jobs that will be lost as a result of automation. Sadly, few of these predictions ever account for the new jobs that will be created by new technologies.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor predicted a few years ago that around 65% of school children today will be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist.
This is reflected in the UK Government report, which clearly states that they expect disruption of the labor market, with existing jobs going and new jobs being created. As such, they advocate a significant rise in opportunities and readiness for re-training on a regular and ongoing basis.
It’s a topic I touched upon recently, and looked at the potential for digital platforms such as Coursera to provide a low-cost means of regularly brushing up our skills and adapting to changes in the marketplace. Sadly, despite thousands of students enrolling on these courses, neither the Department of Work & Pensions or the Department of Education seemed to know what a MOOC was, much less were they being actively used to help people re-train when their livelihoods had been disrupted.
It’s a picture that Roger Bou, director, IoT Solutions World Congress, is only too aware of.
“The report rightly acknowledges the importance of being ready to re-skill and up-skill the workforce on a continuing basis. Concerns about AI and robotics fundamentally changing – or eliminating entirely – some roles are realistic, but the fact of the matter is that every major technological change in the history of industry has had this effect,” he told me recently.
Heads in the sand
So this isn’t really something that should shock or surprise us, yet there remains a sense that we are wholly unprepared for it. Indeed, a recent study from Massey University’s School of Management explored just how worried workers in New Zealand were of such automated unemployment.
It found that over 87% of workers disagreed with the premise that a machine will one day be able to do their job better than they could.
“Despite experts like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking warning about mass unemployment in the future, it seems very few New Zealanders are making any plans to change out of jobs that might disappear over the next five to ten years,” the researchers say.
I’m not sure the government is any more prepared for this than those New Zealanders. The kind of disruption caused by technology is no different to that caused by things such as globalization, and the recent Brexit vote highlighted how unwilling they are to focus on adaptability as opposed to scapegoating. It’s hard to believe things will be any different with regards to automation.