With the UK, this week announcing a £1 billion combined public (£400m + £300m new) and private (£300m) drive into artificial intelligence: understanding the benefits this will bring to long- and short-term growth is complicated and very much uncharted territory. It won’t simply provide the 'limitless opportunities' that Business Secretary Greg Clark purported. We were reminded of a report in 2017 from the consultancy firm PwC in which it stated that up to 30% of all the jobs in the United Kingdom were at risk from both breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. The report states the impact will be felt mostly in the low skilled, low wage sectors of the economy where PwC expects the balance of power to shift in favour of robots as they become cheaper to produce over the coming decades.
The low skilled, low wage sector also happens to be the UK biggest employer. Over 2.2 million jobs could be at risk in the wholesale and retailing sector alone, as well as 1.2 million in manufacturing, administrative and support services 1.1 million and nearly 1 million in storage and transport. Although PwC believes that the increase in automation will have the knock on effect of an increase in productivity and some new job opportunities will also be created, it warns measures need to be taken to address the widening inequality at the potential loss of so many jobs. The report believes those workers who left school with little or no education are the ones at biggest risk to future changes in the workplace, but there is an argument that the government could and should do more to ensure the benefits of the advancement in technology are shared. Lifelong learning, early intervention in education and job matching are some of the ideas broached.
However, that is not to say that those workers who are further up the food chain are not at risk. As PwC’s chief economist, John Hawksworth states ‘A key driver of our industry-level estimates is the fact that manual and routine tasks are more susceptible to automation, while social skills are relatively less automatable. That said, no industry is entirely immune from future advances in robotics and AI’. Interestingly, men are more likely to be at risk than women in the future, due to the fact women tend to work in industries that require higher levels of education, such as indeed education. Just over 25% of women’s jobs could be at risk, verses 35% of men’s jobs.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. As Jon Andrews, the head of technology and investments at PwC believes, if steps are taken now, society as whole could benefit from the changes. He states ‘There’s no doubt that AI and robotics will rebalance what jobs look like in the future, and that some are more susceptible than others. What’s important is making sure that the potential gains from automation are shared more widely across society and no one gets left behind. Responsible employers need to ensure they encourage flexibility and adaptability in their people so we are all ready for the change’ adding ‘In the future, knowledge will be a commodity so we need to shift our thinking on how we skill and upskill future generations. Creative and critical thinking will be highly valued, as will emotional intelligence’.