Headlines this week in Brussels struck a typically ominous tone – “Ansip insists automation revolution won’t cause ‘mass unemployment’” – the great threat of robots has been exercising Brussels policy-makers for some time. There were even calls in European Parliament recently for companies which replaced workers with robots to be taxed. Ansip, who sensibly disagrees with that approach, was speaking to manufacturing leaders, the sector already being most affected by the march of the robots. By some accounts, he tried to strike an optimistic tone, focusing on the new skills opportunities, but the headlines were still dominated by fear of the coming changes.
This fear has been a feature of politics in the West recently, with Donald Trump’s campaign in America promising to bring back manufacturing jobs to the rustbelt and hold back the rise of the machines. There is despair amongst many in Brussels about the scale of the skills revolution needed, almost half of Europeans lack even basic digital skills. So the temptation to try to hold back the automation revolution is clear to see, but it would be disastrous, it would not stop the rest of the world advancing and Europe would be left a digital backwater. It would also be trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, as the likes of Jaguar Land Rover’s robot workers show, the robots have already arrived.
The speed of change is part of what unnerves people; the automation revolution could bring about almost the same level of change as the industrial revolution in only a couple of decades. But, we have no choice but to leave behind the dystopian visions of a world where mankind is redundant in every sense of the word, and embrace the opportunities automation gives us. We have been here before on a smaller scale, household appliances have already led to half a century of dramatic changes in the home, reducing the number of people working in domestic service, and freeing up time in ways people of previous generations never imagined possible. No one seems to miss spending several hours every day cleaning their home, washing their clothes and doing many other basic chores that machines have made much more efficient.
There is no doubt that the automation revolution poses significant challenges, and not all jobs lost will be easily replaced, but if we accept intelligent machines into our lives the opportunities are enormous. Machines will be able to do almost anything more cheaply than human workers, driving down the costs of goods and services. Robot drones can transform our connectivity. Paradoxically, whilst employment may fall, living standards could rise. To help prevent dramatic falls in employment levels we should focus on using the skills that make us human, in particular our creativity, which has taken us from early hand tools that enabled us to distinguish ourselves from other animals to the point where we can create machines to do almost everything for us. Scientists are already talking about the creativity revolution.
The scientific revolution can be pushed to new boundaries with robot assistance added to the human mind; we can even send our robot s into space to exploit the possibilities of the universe for us. Human ingenuity is still essential to enabling and expanding the tech revolution, the entertainment industry also needs our creative input, and human interaction is still key to the services industry. Machine managers or trainers will be a key industry of the future, helping our robot workers do the best job they can. Severely disabled persons left out of the workplace will find it much easier to rejoin mainstream employment with intelligent robot helpers. Most excitingly of all, automation can help make the vision of a society of entrepreneurs even closer to reality, leading to a significant reduction in the reach and power of large corporations. Robot assistants enable us all to become our own mini-companies, designing, building, manufacturing, marketing and selling a product becomes possible for a single entrepreneur. The liberating possibilities for work, life and individual independence of the automation revolution are endless as long as we prepare and skill ourselves correctly to exploit them. So instead of fearing change or trying to delay it, governments and companies should focus now on making sure we’re all ready for it.