Will automation become the next job killer?

Automation is on track to become the ultimate job killer. In fact, much like the industrial revolution 200 years ago, the automation of human tasks is revolutionising both the workplace and society. What this means for the manufacturing sector can be both thrilling and frightening depending on whose point of view you take.

According to a recent article in phys.org, the fear of losing our jobs to machines is not new. With some forecasts indicating that within 20 years, 35 per cent of all UK jobs are at risk of vanishing from automation, it might be a good time to see how our future working lives will be effected by the rise of the machines.

Research published last year by Oxford University and Deloitte said in the UK there is a 77 per cent probability of 1.3 million administrative and operative roles being automated. While factory workers are very familiar with automation taking over repetitive, precise and physically arduous tasks, the list also found that work performed by police, teachers and even journalists is open to being automated. Similar research in the US by McKinsey has backed up these findings.

Having said that, another Deloitte study found that while automation had reduced agriculture and manufacturing employment in the UK over the past 150 years, the corresponding growth in other professions had more than offset this downward trend.

The McKinsey research pointed out that the discussion can be misleading if by the term ‘job’ we mean ‘occupation’, and added that only some functional activities will be automated, leading to a “redefinition of occupations in the same way that automatic cash machines changed that of the bank clerk”.

The researchers found that less than 5 per cent of US occupations could currently be completely automated, while at the same time also finding that 60 per cent of occupations could have around a third of their activities automated.

For a local perspective, in an article last year in The Conversation titled Australia must prepare for massive job losses due to automation, Griffith University lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies David Tuffley said the next 20 years are likely to see significant changes in industries that are currently considered safe.

“We know that jobs in agriculture, mining and manufacturing have been squeezed in recent years, but sectors that have been relatively immune to technological disruption, such as health, are also under pressure,” said Tuffley.

Creativity and innovation, he noted were not just cliches of the modern age, but rather part of a long historical pattern from which we should all learn from.

Going one step further and with an eye on the legal ramifications of automation, recently, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) asked the European Commission to establish a legal ‘status’ for robots to exploit their economic potential, while guaranteeing citizen safety and security, including job security.

But according to economist Alan Kohler in a recent op-ed in The Australian newspaper, it’s not just our leisure time we’ll be restructuring if automation and robots take our jobs but also the tax and political systems.

Wrote Kohler, “…The common line that economic growth in the 19th century meant that those who were displaced by mechanical looms and steam power eventually got jobs is rubbish.”

“They just died — poor and young, mostly from the lack of sanitary and medical technology,” he wrote.

Real wages said Kohler “fell 10 per cent between 1770 and 1840, and took 60-70 years to sustainably rise again. Per capita consumption rose only 22 per cent from 1760 to 1830 — a growth rate of 0.28 per cent per annum.”

“The result was a massive widening of inequality and aggregations of colossal wealth in a few oligopolies and monopolies,” resulting, he pointed out, in “…Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and The Communist Manifesto of 1848.”

Kohler also pointed out there is now “a debate getting started about whether automation and artificial intelligence really will lead to mass unemployment, and therefore require a fundamental restructuring of the welfare system and society’s approach to the idea of work itself.”

“It’s a bit like the debate about climate change, only less tangible,” he somewhat wryly pointed out.

To add to this bubbling cauldron of potential socio-economic inequity is the ‘Internet of Things’- which in itself is worthy of a whole new discussion on the job killing effects of automation. Automation has been around for a very long time, but it remains to be seen if some of our jobs can say the same.