With the growth of artificial intelligence, the fears of many have started to become a reality as jobs start falling to the machines.
Many technologists and government officials will see the emergence of the digital era as a chance to score political points through job creation, however one has to ask whether the scale of the challenge is appreciated. For Dik Vos, CEO at SQS, the rapid evolution to the connected economy could see as many as 30% of the population being made redundant and in need to retraining.
“The real impact will be seen in five to seven years but already in 2017 there will be greater disruption to the community and more jobs taken over by software,” said Vos in an interview with Telecoms.com. “There will be a huge group of people who will be caught out when the rate of development goes much faster than we anticipated.”
Over the last couple of months, governments around the world have been readying themselves for the introduction of artificial intelligence and the impact it will have on society. The fact that humans will lose jobs to machines is inevitable, we’ve already seen this start in Japan, though there are still a vast number of outcomes which are not being considered; this in itself could compound the challenge.
“We always think about the obvious ones, factory workers or drivers, but there’s a huge number of side jobs that will disappear because the environment will change fundamentally,” said Vos.
Self-driving cars are an obvious place to start. Once self-driving cars become more prominent in the cities, taxi drivers will become redundant. This is the splash, the most immediate impact from the introduction of new technology. But a connected car is not just for the purposes of an individual’s infotainment system, but a single piece of a wider network. Each car is connected, able to communicate with the other vehicles around it
“In the US, you have this fantastic system of stop signs,” said Vos. “The first car stops, then the second car stops. Then the first car starts and after that the second follows; they have this brilliant discipline on cross roads. If you were to use software to recreate this situation in the cities, this would immediately make traffic lights redundant.”
In this instance, those who are responsible for the maintenance of the traffic lights will no longer be required. The company who manufactures them will no longer have these contracts, and will therefore reduce its workforce. These are the ripples, and this is what the government is not considering currently according to Vos. Government officials are still assessing the impact of artificial intelligence in today’s environment, instead of trying to understand how the environment will change because of the technology before assessing the impact.
This is one example, but there are many more ripples. Take for instance the connected car. Would there be need for street signs or those who maintain them? Or toll booth attends? Or parking wardens? Software would either replace these individuals or make the role entirely redundant.
In theory, this software orientated approach could also make transportation much safer as well as more efficient. The London Underground is currently trying to find its place in the technology ecosystem, as every prospect of new technology is met with resistance. The suggestion of driverless trains brought about strikes on the grounds of safety, however Vos believes a software-orientated train system would in fact be safer.
“At airports we’re completely used to driverless trains, so it’s completely possible on the underground,” said Vos. “Almost everyone now has a highly digital and connected devices on their person at any time. Unions always talk about safety, but as long as I have a connected device a train can detect where I am, irrelevant if I’m underground, and react depending on my presence. If I’m too close to the edge, it might pull its horn, or it might stop.”
But how is the government reacting? Are adequate plans being put in place to ensure these technologies don’t have too much of an impact?
“It depends what stance the government takes,” said Vos. “If you take France this is an example of a very socialist country, where the government takes a very active role. On the other hand, you have the UK where the government gives more freedom to industry, it’s more of a standoff position.”
This could cause a challenge due to the fact businesses are more concerned about having the right employees than national ones. Freedom of movement will allow a British business to hire from anywhere in the European Union. If there is a skills gap in the UK, a business can always recruit from the continent. The desire to retrain these potentially jobless individuals is not necessarily there, as it may be cheaper and more effective to hire from abroad.
While industry has to play a more active role to ensure digitalization does not negatively impact society on the whole, the government has a much more significant responsibility. At the same time, this isn’t just a responsibility to retrain people currently in the workforce, but also ensure future generations are prepared for the digital era.
“The big difference between the European countries and the UK is that there are countries who will give you a national diploma in plumbing or nutrition – this doesn’t exist in the UK,” said Vos. “In Germany, there is an enormous system of apprenticeships, for all ages. In the UK, I’m a bit more worried than in mainland Europe.”
Addressing the retraining question is a big one, but another difficult one is whether it is an achievable one. Artificial intelligence will replace some of the more menial jobs, and in turn create a number of jobs for software engineers. Yes, future generations can be trained to fill these jobs, however there will be a huge dilemma for a generation of blue collar workers who may not be able to be retrained for the newly created roles.
How are these people going to support themselves in an increasingly digital economy? Can bureaucracy keep pace with technology? The future is digital, but it’s likely to be a very painful road to get there for some.