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Ian Brinkley

Robots and humans

Authors: Ian Brinkley Ian Brinkley

15 May 2013

The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate takes a look at the future – are we in danger of being replaced by robots and will artificial enhancement of people’s cognitive abilities and performance start to have a real impact on the workplace?

If there has been one consistently wrong prediction over the past 40 years, it has been that robots would be widely used not just at work but also in the home. Robots have indeed become an increasing presence on production lines and in some processes, but are still a long way from the dreams of science fiction writers. This has not deterred futurologists, although the more outlandish predictions have been pushed comfortably far into the future. 

More generally, new technologies which automate processes previously carried out by people have in the past been seen as heralding the end of work or at least the end of work as we know it. In every OECD economy however, the number of people in work has continued to rise despite the adoption of successive waves of new tech. New tech is not a jobs killer for the economy as a whole.

But what new tech undoubtedly can be is a major disruptive force. New techs do kill off some jobs, even if they allow others to flourish. They can push the wages down for some groups of workers and drive up the wages for others. They can open up sectors to international competition previously shielded and intensify the pressure on those already operating in the global economy. They can cause radical changes in industrial structure, with the rise of new industries and activities and the fall of others. They cause widespread changes in organisations as conventional business models fall apart and have to be re-thought. And the pace at which they are being introduced is speeding up across the globe.

How well or badly economies and societies handle these changes will often determine the extent to which they cause lasting damage. For example, effective and responsive systems, institutions and organisations that provide retraining for workers with redundant skills, while equipping young people and others with relevant skills for the future, are able to attract new investment to the areas worst affected. This approach will help those who can to move to new areas of opportunity and mitigate the employment impacts of disruptive technologies.

But human enhancement is moving us into unknown territory. Some enhancements have a very positive impact. For example, allowing people with otherwise limiting physical disabilities to perform a wider range of tasks in the workplace, extend working lives and provide new opportunities for employment. These include improvements to sight, hearing, and mobility. Other enhancements such as drugs to improve memory and concentration – used by some students for many years now – could become much more widely used and could throw up difficult problems for both employers and employees. Our poll question about whether people might be willing to accept a micro-chip to enhance their career goes to the heart of this debate.

As well as participating in our poll, I recommend to anyone who has a view on these issues to read the 2012 report from the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Academy. Take part in the debate #stealingourjobs.  

The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate 'Will robots and enhanced humans steal our jobs?' is on 11 June.