Robots may do to jobs what mechanisation did to horses

Driverless cars are one thing, but when your own job is threatened you need to pay attention

The rise of robots will challenge many of our beliefs, not least our conviction that a good education is the best route towards prosperity. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

The rise of robots will challenge many of our beliefs, not least our conviction that a good education is the best route towards prosperity. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

 

At least one Nobel Prize-winning economist has predicted that the relationship between human beings and the world of work will resemble that between horses and agriculture.

Farming once almost entirely relied on horsepower, and most human beings worked the land. Few people or horses go anywhere near modern agriculture.

Robots will do for the world of work what mechanisation did to horses. It is estimated that in 1900 there were about three million horses in Great Britain, many of which were involved in work of one kind or another.

By the outbreak of the first World War, a short 14 years later, the number of working horses had fallen to fewer than 25,000.

Over the last two decades, manufacturing output in China has increased by about 70 per cent. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economists Eric Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence (writing in Foreign Affairs), the number of people working in Chinese factories has, over the same time period, fallen by 30 million – about 25 per cent of these jobs have disappeared. The “offshoring” of jobs is looking like an interim phase: the West loses manufacturing jobs to China but they too ultimately see employment vanishing as automation, the final phase, takes over.

Of course changes of this nature have always taken place. The issue today is the sheer scale of that change. We might celebrate the gradual disappearance of menial, soul-destroying labour but, according to some futurologists, unlike prior technological change, few jobs are now safe from automation.

John Lanchester illustrates this point when, in the London Review of Books, he reproduces an Associated Press report about Apple’s latest profits statement.

It contains the usual material about billions of dollars of revenues and the sale of millions of iPhones and iPads.

Familiar stuff, but all contained in an article written entirely by a machine with zero human intervention or input. Driverless cars are one thing, but when your own job is threatened you need to pay attention.

Job scarcity

That certainty, if robots really do take over, has gone. Career choice is now a roll of the dice. Luck was always involved but now it is everything.

What advice should we give our young people about preparing for work in the face of all of this?

The old strictures about education, investing in yourself, taking the long view may no longer apply. Last week I pointed out how we are becoming, to our detriment, more short-term in many aspects of business life. But, when it comes to career choices, the only rational response in the face of unprecedented uncertainty might be to take the money and run. Years of apprenticeship and study can now be rendered worthless overnight.

Economist and blogger Chris Dillow has reached precisely this conclusion. Getting a degree just doesn’t cut it any more, at least from a career perspective.

It is, he points out, a perfectly reasonable response to unprecedented uncertainty to become hyper short-termist. And that means making as much money as you can in as short a time as is possible. Otherwise, your income remains highly vulnerable to offshoring or robotisation.

Given that we can’t all become premiership footballers, what is the shortest route to the most money? It’s still banking and finance. For both rocket scientists and the most untalented of our children, the finance industry is still the most obvious way to make money. And one business where it is still possible to make money quickly.

Of course, while this might make abundant sense for the individual, the continued diversion of our best human resources into socially useless activities is not a recipe for the long-term health of societies or economies.

The rise of robots will challenge many of our beliefs, not least our conviction that a good education is the best route towards prosperity. Machines might ultimately produce everything that we need, but how that output will be distributed will require a rather different set of economic arrangements than the ones we are used to.

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