Another day, another report warning about the threats posed to the jobs market caused by new technologies. This is one of the better reports, but the key point is still not fully understood.
The biggest mistake we make when looking at how technology will affect the jobs market is to look at the lesson of history.
“The history of the Industrial Revolution would suggest that more jobs will be created than are lost,” states the latest report on jobs and automation, this one from Future Advocacy. The report was trying to express both sides of the automation debate.
Some argue that technologies such as AI will eliminate millions of jobs, creating mass unemployment and extreme inequality and suggest the only possible fix lies in some form of universal basic income. Others say that certain tasks will be automated, but that most jobs entail multiple tasks, and automation will simply mean existing jobs will change, rather than be eliminated.
The Future Advocacy report, which draws on a study by PwC, says, “The proportion of jobs at high risk of automation by the early 2030s varies from 22 per cent to 39 per cent for different constituencies.”
It then drills down looking at which parliamentary constituencies are most at risk from automation related job losses. Hayes and Hurlington tops the list, the constituency that has as its MP, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Other high risk constituencies include Crawley, North Warwickshire, Alyn and Deeside and Brentford and Isleworth – that’s the top five.
The key point in the report is probably this one: “The tendency of the media to present the issue in a sensationalist way, focusing on Terminator-style artificial general intelligence, may divert attention from the more pressing issue that huge societal change could be brought about by these technologies. Although public faith in politicians is at a low ebb in many countries, ultimately the democratic process is our best hope of ensuring that the social and economic risks of AI are mitigated and the opportunities are maximised. We need politicians to focus more on this issue.”
Those comments are spot on, the impact on society is going to be of overwhelming importance.
The mistake many make when they draw upon the lesson of history, that’s the lesson which says technology creates more jobs than it destroys, relates to the relentless pace of change that is set to occur.
We are in the age of accelerating technology. We are on that point of the exponential curve that describes the innovation trajectory when things change at an extraordinary pace, but also at a pace that keeps getting quicker.
There is no precedent in history. But what history does tell us is that there are time lags between technology destroying and then creating jobs, this time around change will outpace these time lags.
What is the fix?
The Future Advocacy report emphasised education, it is right in that respect. But education needs to encourage a more entrepreneurial way of thinking, it needs to create a mindset that can cope better with change.