As time goes by, it becomes clearer that the Terminator movies had it wrong. Skynet, I’m pretty sure, won’t launch nuclear missiles against Russia as soon as it becomes self-aware. It won’t send Arnie and Robert Patrick back from the future to whack John Connor. It won’t have to. By the time robot-kind wants to take over the planet, it will have already taken what matters most: our jobs and our wages. We’ll all be too distracted by daytime teevee, and by worrying about the next gas bill, to do anything about it.
Okay, so I exaggerate – but the subject of automation, of technology doing the jobs we currently do, is a serious one. I wrote about it, with respect to the retail sector, for the Times (£) in the summer. The face of the future isn’t a metallic skull with red eyes; it’s a self-service checkout machine.
But before we get onto that, some context. One of the most frustrating things about the standard Westminster jobs debate is how rooted it is in the present, in the successes and failures of the latest employment statistics. It barely ever looks at the past, and, in doing so, it neglects some of the trends that could determine the future. Take those retail jobs: according to a report by the Centre for Retail Research, the number of stores in Britain has gone from around 600,000 in 1950 to less than 300,000 now. And it’s going to get worse. Projections are of 316,000 more people being forced out of retail work, temporarily or permanently, in the next five years.
A thousand different factors are contributing to this grim slide, among them online shopping. But a relatively new one can now be added to their number: automation. Figures from Retail Banking Research show that there were about 4,000 self-service checkout machines installed in Britain in 2007. They expect that to rise to 50,000 by 2018.
Oh, scoff all you like at those stuttering, frustrating machines. Point out that they must keep an entire army of people employed, just to deal with the “unexpected item in baggage area” error messages. But that doesn’t mean the technology won’t improve. After all, the supermarkets spy money in self-service checkout. The machines don’t need to be trained, they don’t demand a living wage, and they promise more sales per second. The executives will surely want to make it work.
Besides, it goes beyond the checkout areas of supermarkets. When I wrote my Times article, I concentrated on the retail sector because it is the largest private sector employer in the country, and, for now, a bastion of working class jobs. But the former No.10 policy adviser Rohan Silva has since made a brilliant film, for Newsnight, that summarised the effect of technology on middle class jobs – and it ain’t pretty. As he put it:
“…some believe we’re on the verge of a technological revolution that’s going to see white collar jobs in areas such as administration, accounting, medicine and the law starting to be replaced by software and computer programs. In other words, if the last century was about technology replacing brawn, this century could be about technology replacing brains.”
This ought to worry politicians – and particularly those of governments yet to come – immensely. Not only does it threaten to push more people into lower paid work, at best, and into the dole queues, at worst, but it also goes against some current policies in welfare reform. For example, many of the agencies tasked with easing unemployment do so by cooperating with retailers such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer. Will they, should they, have to find other job sources?
There are, as always, some countervailing facts and developments. For instance, as the economist Tyler Cowen points out in Silva’s film, some jobs, such as food service, are resilient to technology. And still other jobs will come out of this: we’ll need someone to design all those self-service checkout machines and computer programs, after all. But, increasingly, I consider these scant consolations. The ability of technology to do our jobs is limited, really, only by human ingenuity and imagination – and I don’t consider that much of a limitation at all. Did you know? They’ve already started trialling drones to deliver people their food in restaurants.
There are no obvious or easy ways around these tidal, historical forces. In my Times article, I concentrated on skills, and that’s certainly part of it: if you want to thrive in the land of the robots, then best that you either have flexible, adaptable skills that can take you from one job to another, or that you simply have the skills that machines do not. But even this isn’t a panacea. It suggests that the politics of employment will become a politics of retrenchment, where we’re all hunting around for the last jobs that haven’t been usurped by technology. And that could get awful competitive.
Another possibility – although it’s a bit of a lame hope – is that a great, black swan will descend to invalidate all these concerns. Perhaps the price of electricity will become too great for machines, in both their creation and operation, to be economical. Perhaps there will be a consumer revolt against shops where everything is automated. Who knows? But I reckon we should get things started right now, which is to say: this post was written by a human. Don’t accept anything less.