Automation: a greater threat than immigration?

Immigration is the first word on the lips of so many British politicians, but they might well wonder whether automation is by far the more credible and long-term threat to the country’s economy. A glance round any given supermarket or airport will swiftly give you the impression that it’s not foreigners who are running off with all the jobs: it’s technology. Where there were once several staff helping you to pay for your shopping or waiting to pass their eyes over your travel documents, there are now only terminals where you can swipe and go, overlooked by one or two employees.

Delegating all this work to the machines makes excellent sense from a financial point of view: after all, a computer doesn’t need a pension, a salary or sick leave, and so companies are able to make substantial savings. It’s not such good news for those seeking employment, though. This issue most recently hit the headlines in November last year, when London Underground announced that it was going to close several ticket offices and replace them with unmanned ticket collection points: a restructuring which would save them £270million, and which would result in the loss of 750 jobs.

Interestingly, neither those proposing or attacking these plans referred to them as automation. It seems that this is the slowly-looming topic of which few people will speak: the replicant in the living room, if you will. Yet the trend, viewed across industries, is becoming difficult to ignore. The Economist, writing on this subject in January 2014, referred to a 2013 paper by Carl Benedik Frey and Michael Osborne, which contended that “jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted. That includes accountancy, legal work, technical writing and a lot of other white-collar occupations”.

This would be an unprecedented development. In 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels envisaged a society where the lower-middle class might find themselves far worse off due to the march of technology: they would be “swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new means of production”. But these new advances in science are changing the job market beyond recognition, affecting even those who would regard themselves as part of highly-trained and therefore secure professions.

Some journalists are becoming uncomfortably familiar with this approaching reality. In April 2012, Wired Magazine considered whether articles written by algorithms might one day replace reporters: in doing so, they asked Kristian Hammond, the co-founder of Narrative Science, what percentage of news would be written by computers within 15 years. His answer? “More than 90 per cent.”

Hammond’s predictions are ambitious – he projects that a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize within the next five years – but they provide crucial food for thought. After all, as recently as March 2014, the BBC was able to relate the news that “the Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper to publish a story on an earthquake…thanks to a robot writer.” The inventor of the software, journalist and programmer Ken Schwenke, was adamant that his creation would not help to put him and his colleagues out of work. “It’s supplemental,” he told the BBC. “It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would. The way I see it is, it doesn’t eliminate anybody’s job.” However, looking again at Hammond’s thoughts, it’s hard to concur.

Politicians are currently unwilling to speak publicly on this phenomenon, but it may be that other factors soon conspire to force their hands. At a time when the cost of living is soaring in the UK, the last thing that the country needs is a shrinking pool of jobs. Moreover, as robots continue to perform tasks that humans might previously have done – without the option, if underpaid, to begin strike action – then the cost of labour will continue to fall, resulting in ever lower wages. In a market where the profit margin is king, people will find themselves competing more and more with machines for their paycheques. Our next generation could see delivery of goods by unmanned drones, and even driverless taxis taking people from A to B.

Whilst governments celebrate the savings that automation will bring, it appears that they are not paying the same attention to the cost – both social and financial – of the greater unemployment that it looks likely to cause. At present, so much political rhetoric is devoted to how little people want to work. However, it might be more useful to talk about job creation, and what work in future so many of these supposedly lazy people will actually do.

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