When was the last time you worked with a secretary – a proper secretary that is, not a PA or office manager, but someone whose job it is to do the typing? Not so long ago, you couldn’t run an office without them. I’m told that as recently as the 1980s, the Conservative Research Department employed one secretary for every two desk officers.
Computers put paid to all that, of course. And yet we barely seem to have noticed – according no greater significance to the demise of the typist than we did to the obsolescence of the lamplighter. Perhaps we simply assume that technological progress will always create more jobs than it destroys. It would seem reasonable to do so – after all, 2013 was the year when the number of people in work reached thirty million for the first time in our history.
But according to Tim Harford in the Financial Times, things may be about to change:
“Computing power is starting to solve everyday problems – which turn out to be the hardest ones. Computers were laughable drivers in 2004, when a computer-driving competition was ‘won’ by a car that crashed after completing seven miles of a 150-mile course. Now computers drive cars safely.
“In 2008, robots still struggled with a problem known as ‘Slam’ – simultaneous localisation and mapping, the process of mentally building up a map of a new location, including hazards, as you move through it. In 2011, Slam was convincingly addressed by computer scientists using Microsoft’s ‘Kinect’ gaming hub, an array of sensors and processors that until recently would have been impossibly costly but is suddenly compact and cheap.”
Just as the early steam engines made the transition from very basic tasks like pumping water out of mines to powering just about everything, computers (and the machines that they control) are about to breakthrough into new applications:
“Problems such as language recognition and Slam have so far prevented robots working alongside humans; or on tasks that are not precisely defined, such as taping up parcels of different sizes or cleaning a kitchen. Perhaps the robots really are now on the rise.”
Despite the overall rise in employment, the warning signs are clear:
“What is sobering is that we have already seen convincing evidence of the impact of technology on the job market. Alan Manning of the London School of Economics coined the term ‘job polarisation’ a decade ago, when he discovered that employment in the UK had been rising for people at the top and the bottom of the income scale. There was more demand for lawyers and burger flippers. It was middle-skill jobs that were disappearing.”
But, hang on, isn’t this more a case of globalisation than mechanisation – with jobs moving to different countries rather than disappearing altogether? Apparently not:
“We tend to imagine that manufacturing jobs have disappeared to China; in fact, manufacturing employment in China has been falling. Even the Chinese must fear the robots.”
Tim Harford concludes on a conditionally hopeful note:
“By the time today’s 10-year-olds have their degrees, computers could be a hundred times cheaper and smarter than they are today. A future full of robot servants could be a bright future indeed, but only if we can adapt our institutions quickly enough.”
Well, that’s all right, then. Guided by the high-minded, long-term thinking of visionary leaders like David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Nigel Farage and Len McCluskey we have absolutely nothing to worry about!