Robot Revolution: Our disappearing jobs and the future of work
“Imagine a pair of horses in the early 1900s talking about technology. One worries that all these new mechanical muscles will make horses unnecessary.
The other reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier.
Remember all that farm work?
Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail?
Remember riding into battle?
These city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities there are more jobs for horses than ever”
Sometimes the threat to your industry is not the one that is directly in your line of vision, but the one at the periphery. You might not even recognise it as a problem.
The social housing sector is a good example , believing as it does that planned welfare reforms are the single biggest threat.
10 years from now that sector will look back and see it for what it was – a minor external distraction.
The real disruptive influences will be a rapidly ageing society , a pace of technological change that it failed to embrace , and the disappearance of the jobs that employ their tenants.
People aren’t dying as much as they used to. And the robots have arrived to do all their work for them.
The rise of the robots is articulated brilliantly by CGP Grey in Humans Need Not Apply. In it we are reminded that those horses never did find new jobs. The equine population peaked in 1915 – and it was all downhill from there.
Worryingly it makes the point that us humans are now the horses – and the new jobs that are being created are not a significant part of the labour market. This has potentially dire consequences. Not least for social housing.
We already know that levels of unemployment are disproportionately high among social housing residents. Many housing associations do work around increasing employability and volunteering – usually as a sideline rather than as part of core business.
But getting people into work only solves half the problem. Many of those jobs – often low paying and part time – simply won’t be around for much longer. They will be the first to get automated by the bots.
From driverless cars to drone deliveries – the potential impact is enormous. But this is not a mainstream topic of conversation in health , housing and social care. Indeed – if you do talk about it you are likely to be dismissed as a bit of an oddball.
Who is doing the joined up thinking about what happens in communities where less people are working?
If there’s a criticism of this line of thought – it’s that it focuses on the negatives rather than the wonderful opportunities.
Take Baxter, who was created to take manufacturing duties from humans. But , the creator Rodney Brooks has contended that the robot won’t lead to lost jobs. On the contrary, he believes Baxter could be the salvation of workers, who would otherwise succumb to Chinese competition. Indeed , the International Federation of Robotics has reported that the one million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs.
So what are the jobs in our communities that need protecting? And how could we deploy technology to retain vital local services?
And then there’s Paro , a therapeutic robot that is used widely in Japan but is now being tested by the NHS. Paro allows the benefits of animal therapy to be administered to patients in care facilities. Far from being a toy, Paro stimulates interaction between patients and caregivers and has been shown to improve relaxation and motivation.
How could this new breed of companionship robots help communities at risk of isolation and loneliness? How could we combine real world active networks with these sociable robots?
Instead of ignoring this , or dismissing as science fiction – it’s time we brought the conversation mainstream. We need to start racing with the machines rather than ignoring them.
Really we have three options:
- We start to reimagine communities and what meaningful work and play looks like in the future. We begin long term planning building from the skills already in the community. We embrace technology and develop local frameworks that enable people to do better things.
- We forget the idea of work in abundance and start an argument for a Universal Basic Income (in essence – we guarantee every citizen a flat basic allowance, which would be unaffected by any earnings they gained on top of it). Matt Leach has written an excellent post on this concept , which admittedly would take huge political will to achieve.
- We do nothing. And we stumble into a world of disappearing jobs and fail to imagine a better future. We are left with increasingly marginalised communities with reduced income, less active lifestyles and all the resulting health problems.
Truthfully we need more than a robot revolution.
We need a revolution in the way housing , health and social care approach their work.
A shift away from siloed approaches where we might be ignoring the real threats – as well as the many opportunities. We need a radical vision for connected communities and a network of innovators and entrepreneurs to help drive us forward.
This will be painful as it means challenging a lot of vested interests, breaking through the ‘sector think’ which has existed for decades.
None of our organisations are special. None are irreplaceable.
We have to think and act very differently if we are to avoid a future where humans need not apply.