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Workplace automation: Is the UK worried?

Industry leaders Stephen Hawking and Tesla’s Elon Musk have done a good job instilling a deep-rooted fear of robots taking our jobs. When Taiwanese giant, Foxconn cut 60,000 jobs and gave them to robots, the internet smugly saw this as proof of what is yet to come. But the panel at the Tech for Britain event in London unanimously agreed: humans should be thrilled about automation.

“It's something to actually be excited about. Automation, robots and AI will take the jobs off all those unhappy people doing menial tasks all day. There's so much resource within our brains that is lost at the moment. This will force us into something else,” Rishi Chowdhury, Founder at Incubus London told the audience during the panel debate.

Kristen Tauchmannova, Partnerships Manager at Tech City UK agreed: “I don't think we should be scared. This has happened many times in the past throughout our history. There's always new jobs out there that we just don't know about at the moment so the old jobs can be taken over by automation.”

But Yuval Dvir, Head of Partnerships at Google for Work warned that employers should not just do “automation for automation’s sake” and should instead really look at their organisation to see what actually needs to be shut down: “If you're automating a bureaucratic process, you're not making your company any better. So what are you automating and should we actually invest in it?”

So are the panellists right and should the UK be excited about workplace automation? A report [PDF] by Barclays released last year looks at future opportunities in automation and finds that increased automation will create jobs in the future and even help to “bridge the widely recognised skills gap in the UK workforce”. But the report did note that the UK government should be doing more to create “greater awareness” around the benefits of automation.

And what of employees themselves? The City & Guilds Group in an international study of 8,000 employees across the UK, US, South Africa and India reveals that the UK workforce is “unthreatened” by the rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, “62% said they are not worried about automation and AI in the workplace and “69% are confident that a machine could not do their job”.

Interestingly, the same research noticed a disconnect between how senior leaders and CEOs perceive workplace automation in the future and how employees perceive it lower down the chain. The research found 70% of CEOs and senior leaders agreed that automation and AI could replace a number of jobs within their organisations in 10 years’ time compared to 53% of employees.

The debate over how automation will play out in our workforces in the next 10-20 years is a complicated one. Personally I think there is merit in both sides of the argument. History has shown that humans always find new opportunities to grow and develop during turbulent times of change. Humans are by nature resilient and adaptable. But AI is getting smarter and while it might seem unfathomable now – robots could eventually outsmart us all.

For now, the panellists are excited about robots and what they could do for humans. Volvo’s futurologist, Aric Dromi takes it even further by saying that even if AI “destroys humanity” then so be it.

Whose side are you on?

 

Also read:

Volvo’s futurologist Aric Dromi: The best AI should be a mirror of ourselves

Rise of the bots: Why we should be worried by the Foxconn lay-offs

Office 2021: Why robots won’t end drudgery or steal our jobs

Humanity will invent new jobs long before AI “steals” them all

Can the skills shortage square with automation fear?

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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