Truth about Robots - will robots destroy millions of jobs? What future for human beings at work? Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Keynote Speaker

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Yesterday I shared a platform with a ROBOT to give a keynote  (for EY / Ernst & Young) - as I do regularly....but I'm at no risk whatsoever of losing my job to the automaton.

I have worked with over 400 of the world's largest companies over the last few years, as a Futurist advisor / keynote speaker - and huge numbers of them are worried about robotics / AI / Artificial Intelligence. What does it mean for our business? Are we investing enough in Big Data analytics? How will competitors attack our markets using robotics and next-generation automation. How will Artificial Intelligence control our future?

At the same time, in the media everyday we see sensational headlines such as "Hundreds of millions of jobs will be lost to robots", suggesting that humankind will never be able to find enough work for tomorrow's people, because so many jobs will be done by machines.

In the UK, the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that 15 million UK jobs would be lost to robots.

The truth about robotics is this:

1) Every industrial revolution in human history has benefitted humankind in the same way. Large scale mechanisation, innovation, automation, industrialisation - these things cut costs and so are widely adopted. The biggest cost they reduce is labour. Fewer people, working more efficiently, produce more. 

2) As costs fall, standards of living rise. Society as a whole becomes wealthier.

3) Many traditional jobs start to disappear - usually relatively low grade, manual jobs but more recently, executive jobs are also being hit.

4) At the same time, human ingenuity, innovation and creativity is constantly searching for new ways to make life better, make people happier, make the world a better place to live in.

5) And most of these new initiatives fail because although they are very worthwhile, although many people really want them, we can't really afford them - at least very few people can.

6) But as costs of many things fall the situation changes, because of automation, people and governments begin to find they have enough money to spend on these new things. They also find there are plenty of workers available to provide these goods and services.

7) New markets begin to form, and unemployment stabilises.

Now in practice, all of these 7 factors are operating at the same time to different degrees in each nation, and tend to even each other out.

Shift from automated labour to services

The biggest shift over the longer term is always a migration of labour from production (easily automated) to services (where human touch is often more important).

That has certainly been the case in nations like the UK which have very small numbers of workers in manufacturing, producing more goods than in their entire history, yet have very low unemployment because of the transition of workers into service jobs which never existed before.

Major job losses usually driven by economic cycles not automation

Yes we have seen major rises in unemployment recently in many nations, but almost always linked to economic cycles rather than industrialisation.

The ROBOT Paradox

Here is a paradox: many people who say they fear mass wipeout of millions of jobs, are also the same people who say they fear that society will never be able to afford things like looking after ageing populations properly. 

How so?

Automation will help created the wealth we need to be able to pay all those additional carers. Automation means more incomes, more profits, more taxes and more money for governments to spend. It also means more disposable incomes for ordinary people.

We see this effect even at times of low salary growth or inflation. Take the last decade - a period when incomes in many nations have been relatively static, or have even fallen in real terms if you take inflation into account. 

During the same period, many of the things that people like to own or do have become much more affordable, because of automation / industrialisation / scale. 

Examples include buying a basic smartphone, cost of a fast web connection or of long distance calls, cost of taking a budget flight or a (Uber) taxi, or of taking a city break (AirBnB), or of buying basic groceries (Lidl and other bid discount stores).

Big impact from automation

So then: watch out for big impact of automation in every sector, every industry, every office and factory - but take a look at innovations in new kinds of services even day - leisure industry for example, with huge growth in coffee bars and restaurants, and of every kind of family entertainment including theme parks and leisure centres. 

Many things changing slowly or relatively predictably

By the way - much of the world is changing far more slowly or predictably than most people think - I know this as a Futurist, successfully forecasting trends over the last 25 years. What restaurants actually do for us, holidays, design of hotel rooms, our own kitchens or bathrooms or living rooms, the clothes we wear, the type of music we listen to, the kinds of films we watch - or even the amount of cash in our pockets - more Euros in circulation today than in all history despite the boom in mobile payments.

....And robots sales are still only growing 15% a year (was a mere 7% from 2001-2013) - which is nothing really compared to App downloads, the Internet of Things, Big Data, social media, the Cloud and other parts of the digital revolution.

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