Do Londoners have a competitive advantage in the event of a robot-invasion of the labour market?
One in 20 jobs in London will be taken over by robotic and autonomous systems in the next 20 years.
Most likely to be affected are the Square Mile’s financial, insurance, business and information services.
Just as Londoners traversing the underground are greeted by a sombre barrage of electronic ticket barriers instead of smiles from human ticket checkers, so robots will continue to overtake human capabilities in the capital.
However, it’s not just working-class jobs the robots are coming for, it’s London’s lawyers, insurance underwriters, accountants and auditors. It’s middle-class jobs being ‘stolen’ from middle-class Londoners.
With studies predicting that as many as half of the current jobs in Britain could be obsolete in the next two decades, the question then becomes: Which human skills and qualities will save Londoners from becoming redundant?
Londoners’ opinions of robots
Robot research shows that 60 per cent of the British public believes that robots or artificial intelligence will lead to fewer jobs within ten years. Londoners interviewed on their lunch breaks were equally pessimistic about the job market in the next decade, however, strangely confident that their jobs were safe from any kind of ‘jobs-pocalypse’.
Londoners do not think their jobs can be replaced by robots
Jobs lost, jobs created
While artificial intelligence, robotic and autonomous systems may continue to infiltrate the labour market, Director of Policy and Strategy at the RSA, Anthony Painter, argues that many more new jobs will be created, just as they have been in the past.
“Those who predict there is going to be a decimation of employment, generally are wrong,” he says. “New types of jobs come to the fore and new jobs replace old jobs. But there is a transition, and there are particular groups who lose out in the transition.”
This corresponds with research conducted by Deloitte which found that introducing more robots into the workplace is more likely to revolutionise, than eliminate, jobs. While nearly 1 million lower-paid jobs have been lost in the UK in the past 15 years as a result of automation, the study shows that nearly 3.5 million higher-paid new ones have been created.
Looking to the future, chief economist at the Bank of England, Andrew Haldane, predicts that only low-paid and high-paid jobs will remain after machines “hollow out” middle-income jobs. The jobs left behind will be those that robots aren’t likely to master in the near future.
Indispensable human skills
Not all humans will be hollowed out of their jobs, according to Adzuna, and future businesses will in fact greatly need more ‘human’ skills.
While mechanical muscles and mechanical minds have outcompeted humans in many fields, they will not be able to replace certain human skills such as improvisation, spontaneous memory recall, socialisation and exercising judgement in the near future.
In their study, Adzuna highlights various skills at low risk of automation. These include: negotiation, persuasiveness, creative thinking, complex problem solving, and, perhaps the most irreplaceable of all: empathy.
The importance of human empathy
“Human relationships are entirely precious and important,” says Painter. He holds what he jokingly calls a “nostalgic belief” that humans value and cherish human interaction and that robots cannot replace or reproduce this. “When you have an interface with an inanimate object, then its a missed opportunity for a special interchange,” he says.
Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Steve Fuller, holds a stronger view about the importance of deep, human relationships: he doesn’t think that they exist.
“I think we shouldn’t get too nostalgic about human relationships,” he says. “There are lots of ways of substituting or replacing that level of comfort.”
He continues to explain that it is extremely rare for humans to understand one another on a “deep level” and that robots can provide an adequate, alternative kind of understanding.
Londoners, however, do not necessarily agree with Fuller and express concern about the role of robots in their working environments as well as their role in society. This corresponds with a YouGov survey earlier this month, which shows that two thirds of people aged 18-24 could not envisage robots as future co-workers, and 90 per cent claim that they could not regard robots as family members.
While Londoners prefer the thought of a future alongside human smiles rather than robotic and autonomous systems, there is no denying that such systems are set to become an integral part of the future workforce.
According to Painter, London middle-class workers will need to develop further skills in order to remain relevant in the workplace.
“Ultimately what the workforce of the future will need, is the ability to interface with intelligent machines,” says Painter. “And those intelligent machines are computer robots, but they’re also each other.”