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A recent report by PWC has highlighted that more than 10 million UK workers are at high risk of being replaced by robots in the next 15 years (this represents 30% of all jobs). Sectors at particularly high risk are transport, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and administrative roles.

Those who left school with only GCSE-level qualifications are at highest risk, prompting calls for action by the government and employers to invest in upskilling the workforce, along with the possibility of some form of basic universal income.

Faster and cheaper

Robots and automation have been around for decades, so why now? Moore’s law states that the amount of computer processing power that you can buy for $1 has doubled every 18-24 months and because of this, automisation is now not just a possible option for companies to consider, it is an alternative that can be impossible for some industries to ignore.

Foxconn Technology Group, the $100 billion global electronics group, employs over one million people but is now accelerating its program to replace its human factory workers with an “army of robots” to improve efficiency and combat rising labour costs.

Computer automation has widely affected jobs in industries such as construction, factory-based manufacturing and transportation and will continue to do so. However, white-collar workers and professionals are also likely to be affected by technological advancements. The cutting edge of programming is seeing developers teach bots to think for themselves. Companies are now programming software robots to “creatively” write, to the point that if you have read a newspaper or magazine recently, odds are that you will have read an article written by a software bot.

Software bots are much faster and cheaper than physical robots. White collar workers on the other hand are numerous and expensive. This means from a business perspective the incentive to automate aspects of their work is even greater than for low skilled work and manual labour.

Leading A.I. companies have already stepped further, creating virtual workers who interact on a human level. IPsoft state that their avatar Amelia “understands what people ask – even what they feel – when they call for service.” For example, as a call centre operator Amelia can work using the same instruction manuals or prompts that a human operator would and she “learns” as she works, providing high quality responses consistently. And there are numerous other companies with similarly sophisticated AI products.

Replacement or enhancement?

IPsoft states that it is not looking to push humans out of a job, it is simply trying to free up humans’ time by allowing Amelia to take on the mundane, repetitive, routine and uninspiring tasks. Taking away these tasks will allow humans to focus on higher value functions.

This may well be the case. As A.I. bots grow in number and capability, they will have a dramatic impact on employment. Whilst A.I. won’t replace people entirely, employers will have to completely re-think the structure of their workforces given that machines are likely to carry out a number of roles and tasks, particularly the lower-skilled jobs that are currently undertaken by humans.

During this “revolution” new roles will inevitably emerge and will be required to be fulfilled by people. This will require employers, governments and education providers to respond by having to train and up-skill employees and students to work in other areas. Those organisations that fail to accept and embrace this at the right time will undoubtedly be left behind.

About the author: Kathryn Dooks is Employment Partner at Kemp Little LLP.


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