What will you do when a robot steals your job? That’s a question half of us should be asking, if Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane is to be believed. Fifteen million jobs are at risk from the rise of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics - or half the UK total.
Speaking at the Trade Union Congress, Haldane said that unskilled and administrative roles were most at risk from the ‘third industrial revolution’ of IT, but warned that the rise of technology was ‘hollowing out’ more and more of the labour market.
‘Machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks but cognitive ones too. The set of skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened,’ he said.
The ominous implications were clear. ‘If the option of skilling up is no longer available, this increases the risk of large scale un- or under-employment. The wage premium for those occupying skilled positions could explode, further widening wage differentials.’
These trends are hardly new of course. Technology has been destroying occupations for centuries, yet people have always found new things to do. The danger this time is that there will be fewer and fewer places for CV-touting humans to go.
Haldane didn’t specify how long all this would take, but similar estimates have suggested a 20 or 30 year time span for that degree of job displacement. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, machines will eventually be better at all jobs and therefore the need for human labour will effectively disappear.
But are we really doomed to a 100% unemployment rate in the future? Consumers don’t always pick the cheapest, most efficient option after all (look at the organic food phenomenon), and people like people more than they like machines (just about). Maybe we’ll choose to pay more for a restaurant with a human waiter or residential home with a human carer, even if a robot could technically do it better.
In the absence of a hyperintelligent future-predicting machine, we can’t know exactly how the rise of AI will pan out for us. But we do have a better idea what current technological developments are doing. Some of them are surprising.
Haldane suggested, for instance, that automation could be one reason for the depressed wage growth of recent years, essentially by de-skilling swathes of the workforce. Given that this is what’s keeping inflation and therefore interest rates dangerously low, perhaps we ought to be worrying about the rise of machines sooner rather than later.