Calum Miller: Why we must prepare now to survive the automation apocalypse

CommonSpace columnist Calum Miller outlines how artificial intelligence and automation will change life as we know it

WHILE thinking about the future impact of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), I was struck by an odd sensation of deja vu: wasn’t all this invocation supposed to destroy our jobs 30 years ago? 

I remember studying AI in 1986, however the subject all but vanished from commercial life until a machine called Watson started winning the board game Jeopardy. Just six years ago, only blue chip companies like IBM could afford both the processing and brain power required for AI. Now, the likes of Amazon have commoditised the tech, and every company has high end number crunching within easy reach. 

AI has returned with a vengeance and it’s not backing down again. Just look at some of the headlines:

Now, the likes of Amazon have commoditised artificial intelligence tech, and every company has high end number crunching within easy reach. 

– Accountants have a 95 per cent chance of losing their jobs to automation in the future

– Thirty-nine per cent of jobs in the legal sector could be automated

– Forty-seven per cent of US jobs are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years

– One Chinese factory replaced 90 per cent of workforce with machines

– 90,000 NHS administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists could also be replaced with machines

AI has returned with a vengeance and it’s not backing down again.

– Robots could replace 250,000 UK public sector workers

– Artificial intelligence will take over 80 per cent of IT jobs

– Doctors, lawyers and accountants on computer hit list

– Nearly half of current jobs could be automated by 2055

– Up to 45 per cent of the tasks people are paid to do each day could be automated with current technology

Scary, huh? Every repetitive task is a candidate for automation driven by artificial intelligence but, on more sober reflection, we can see that this will impact countries and employment sectors differently.

The new age of robotics isn’t a zero-sum game and if we look a little closer at each application area we can see why.

Finance

Frontline jobs are disappearing with the closure of bank branches and online fraud is increasing because of automation, but that’s not the whole story. 

After the financial crash, it was almost impossible for small businesses to get credit and those seeking interest were similarly disenfranchised by our banking sector: peer-to-peer lending has been a lifeline to both. Banking job losses have been offset by increases elsewhere in the economy, where small businesses have been able to grow through available credit.

Scotland was at the heart of the last banking revolution – Dundee being the spiritual home of the ATM and the magnetic strip – we shouldn’t fear the next. First, our existing banking behemoths need to fall because their monopolies are blocking innovation. 

Innovators like Monzo are disrupting the traditional banking system by building open platforms, in stark contrast to the fragile systems used by our legacy banks.

Remember when Scotland had a choice of two beer brands, Scottish and Newcastle or Tennent’s? Now we have 80 breweries catering for all tastes. That’s the new specialist model for banking; where products are tailored to the needs of the consumer. 

Innovators like Monzo are disrupting the traditional banking system by building open platforms, in stark contrast to the fragile systems used by our legacy banks.

There are, however, big risks when using AI algorithms to make decisions based on pattern analysis. For example, credit checking companies have been looking for associations between our Facebook profiles and our credit worthiness. 

One published pattern discovered a link between our distance from a celebrity and our likelihood to repay a loan. What about the unpublished patterns based on colour, gender, disability or education? Dumping datasets and making decisions based on spikes is lazy and possibly illegal. We need to open source these algorithms to keep the decision makers in check.

Airports

Remember all those workers who used to check our luggage through at the airport? Where did they go? In self-service land, we print our own tickets and labels, humph our cases onto the conveyor belt and then waltz through security brandishing bar codes. 

None of this automation has reduced airport employment as other areas have picked up the slack – flying has become cheap so we fly more and spend time in the airport bars, coffee shops and duty free. Low value services (think WHSmith) will continue pushing automation to reduce costs but high value services (think duty free and designer goods) will favour people over machines. 

Airports have shown that job displacement needn’t mean job losses, but what about the distribution of wealth? Automation is making companies more productive but profits aren’t ending up in the workers’ pockets, as shown by a recent IMF study.

Retail

Imagine Tesco offered 10 per cent off the weekly shop for using the self-service checkout – who could afford to refuse? If automation reduces food prices then that’s a big plus for Scotland’s hard pressed consumers. 

Money saved would re-enter the economy in different ways – for example, increased leisure spend. The role of the checkout assistant will reduce but other retail areas are picking up the slack. Online ordering is creating thousands of jobs in warehousing, transportation and information technology. 

Scotland doesn’t lack ideas. What we lack is encouragement to bring our ideas to the marketplace.

For all the criticism levelled at Amazon’s employment practices, it has enabled a global market place for Scottish products. Its online ordering and distribution system is par excellence. 

Scotland doesn’t lack ideas, and crowdfunding websites offer accessible means to test products and finance development. What we lack is encouragement to bring our ideas to the marketplace. This needs to happen within our communities, beyond the dead hand of Scottish Enterprise: the success of Men in Sheds should be followed by Tech Sheds and Manufacturing Sheds. 

Such creativity huts will serve our economy better than the virility ‘hubs’ the Scottish Government is erecting across Europe.

Health

A dramatic administrative shake up of our NHS should be happening now. This is not a about saving costs, but saving lives. Paper files should be outlawed and we should own our own electronic records that we can point different algorithms at. Health tech innovation alone deserves a separate article, but here are some of the exciting areas.

– Self-diagnosis: instrument miniaturisation combined with mobile phones makes self-diagnoses possible

– Independence: remote analysis of the elderly allows our senior citizens to remain at home for longer

– Image analysis: machines are better and faster at finding medical anomalies 

A dramatic administrative shake up of our NHS should be happening now. This is not a about saving costs, but saving lives

– Research: 10,000 new papers a day are published, and AI is unearthing links between the research

Automated depression diagnosis from images (note the credit risk implications)

Overcoming disability

Health tech deserves the same publicity as financial tech; these new sectors have a huge job generating capacity in Scotland with supporting policy frameworks in place

Manufacturing

Some in Scotland may wonder where we are going to find the manufacturing jobs to lose to automation! There were 600,000 manufacturing jobs when Scotland joined the EU in 1976, that number halved before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and has nearly halved again since. 

The impact of automation will be greater on the destination of those manufacturing jobs (the Far East) than in Scotland. 

Therein lies the opportunity. If cheap labour is no longer a competitive advantage then why send the work overseas? Adidas never made a training shoe in Germany for 30 years, until last year.

While being one of the leaders in robotic research, the UK lags at implementation and that shows in our poor productivity levels, now at record lows.

248,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2015, representing a 12 per cent increase on 2014. Sixty per cent of those robots went to work in Asia and 10 per cent in Europe, with Germany leading the way. Only about one per cent of those robots are gainfully employed in the UK, mainly in the automotive industry. 

While being one of the leaders in robotic research, the UK lags at implementation and that shows in our poor productivity levels, now at record lows.

Cheap European labour has covered the UK automation gap until now but, with recent currency and political movements, that manual dependency is not sustainable. To reverse the UK’s massive balance of payments deficit, we need to start manufacturing and automating more. Much more. 

Transport

New technology continues to collide with transportation. Relatively recent innovation includes GPS, sat nav, tracking, assisted breaking, reversing cameras and lane detection. 

The next big step is automated deliveries but while that’s possible on motorways, residential areas will remain problematic. Automated trucking can work between the main transport hubs but human intervention will still be required, if only remotely (like an operated drone) over the last mile.

The UK trucking industry is 60,000 drivers short and that number will increase dramatically when older drivers start retiring over the next 10 years. Truck driving is a career of last resort characterised by; long hours, low pay, micromanagement, bureaucratic blood sucking and unsociable working conditions.

Bringing transport costs down benefits the overall economy and the environment.

There is no shortage of HGV qualified drivers, it’s just that people don’t like working in the trucking industry.

Bringing transport costs down benefits the overall economy and the environment. On average, a third of every truck is empty in Europe. New dynamic routing technology will also help reduce smog spots and increase utilisation.

Rail ticketing is also witnessing dramatic and welcome changes. Only in Scotland do you see armies of ticket inspectors at the stations. Elsewhere, this cash is invested back into the service. London is moving, 24/7, creating more work for drivers and the night time economy.

Conclusion

Albert Einstein described imagination as being more important than knowledge and it’s a skill that’s still the preserve of human beings. We can marvel at the chess-playing ability of computers but they don’t get bored of the game and won’t venture off and invent a new one. 

Much of the political response to AI and automation has lacked any imagination and has focused on the minimum income. I live in a Scottish community already deprived of local jobs and we need to ensure that this minimum income doesn’t become the latest government excuse for doing nothing to help. Just paying such communities to do nothing is the surest way to kill us off.

In the short to medium term automation will increase employment. We need to create new software, robots, and productions lines as well as retrain staff. There will be a long lag and an overlap while this change happens. 

Now is the time to prepare Scotland for both the upside and the downside of automation by encouraging that innovation here.

Picture courtesy of untitled exhibitions

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