Robots will enrich not replace us


The robots are coming to take our jobs. So says Martin Ford in The Rise of the Robots, the FT/McKinsey business book of the year. Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, last week warned that 15m jobs in Britain were at risk from automation. Is artificial intelligence about to take over? I am not so sure.

Innovation is always a threat to incumbents; look at the race among carmakers to make a driverless car before Google writes the software for computers with four wheels. Electricity sparked the second industrial revolution, destroying old jobs in industries that became superfluous and leaving workers with stranded skills.

It was tough being a blacksmith in 1920, after industrialists perfected the science of the electric arc and the techniques of mass production. Skills that had been built up through long years of hard labour were now as good as worthless.

This is one reason why university graduates enjoy greater sustained long-term growth in earnings than apprentices — they are better able to ride waves of technological change.

It used to be that industrial towns grew up around the coalfields or water supplies that sustained the machines — only to decline when the machines were themselves superseded. Now clusters emerge around universities and research institutes instead.

But while robots and automation will create problems for particular industries and the people working in them, the economy as a whole can adapt. I do not expect us to depart from the path of industrialisation in which jobs change radically and old ones disappear, but the number of people in work keeps growing. Technological advances bring extraordinary benefits to consumers, as goods become cheaper and new products are created that no one could have foreseen.

Human wants are infinite; the lack of things that had not even been invented a few decades earlier is enough to make us feel poor. If nothing else, people will always pay for interaction with other human beings. Cinema has not killed live theatre; easy access to recorded music has only increased the premium people pay to hear a performance live. The IT revolution has disrupted industries, but it has not been a net destroyer of jobs.

One reason why robot paranoia has taken hold in the US is that companies are taking a greater share of the economic pie, at the expense of workers, at a time when participation in the labour market is falling.

But much of this is a result of American policy failures that need not be replicated elsewhere. America used to be a world leader in educating its workforce but now Britain has a higher graduation rate. Since 1999 the proportion of 25- to 54-year-olds who participate in the labour market has increased by 3 percentage points in the UK while in the US it has fallen by a similar amount.

In the UK pay inequality has been broadly flat since the 2000s and has fallen since the crash; in the US it is rising. Britain’s problem is not that technology is moving too fast: our trouble is that our inventions do not reach the market quickly enough.

We need sustained government investment to spur disruptive technologies, such as automation and robots. This is not the same as old-fashioned propping-up of incumbents; indeed, the technologies in question are a challenge to existing companies. And in the US there is far more federal and state support for the commercialisation of new general-purpose technologies. Britain must keep up.

The problem facing many major economies is not that robots will take all the jobs; it is that they will not be able to take them fast enough as human workers retire.

Japan, with its combination of low birth rates and opposition to immigration, has long been a leading inventor of robots.

They are pioneers in assistive technologies for the elderly — from exoskeletons to help frail people get up and move to service robots that will keep them company.

Britain’s care sector is wrestling with a planned increase in the minimum wage for workers over the age of 25. It could instead turn to innovative technological advances to help it bring down costs. There are still too many policy discussions which assume technology is fixed.

Industry, too, has been too slow to adapt. Because we think of robots as machinery, our conventional model of factory safety has been to keep humans well away from them.

Yet their potential will only truly be unleashed when they are used far more flexibly — so that people think of them almost as colleagues.

I can just about imagine a future where the main debate in public policy is how to distribute revenues from robots to citizens so they can enjoy a life of leisure. It would be rather like HG Wells’ Time Machine — except that the proletariat would consist entirely of robots, so that all the humans would enjoy the fey and carefree existence of his elite.

The problem we confront today is the opposite. We have more work to do than people to do it. Robots are the answer — not the threat.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.