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Future of Work

Fears robots could replace as many as one third of jobs in the UK are causing increasing concern, with the Government taking steps to investigate the impact.

Government officials have been studying predictions that rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) could displace jobs across the economy, and the inequality that could result.

The concerns are echoed by a former Cabinet Office adviser, co-author of a new book welcoming technological progress but warning

In The Future of the Professions, economist Daniel Susskind and legal expert Richard Susskind are calling for the creation of a national task force to investigate the moral constraints needed, as the roles of doctors and lawyers fall increasingly to intelligent machines.

“The professions are creaking – these increasingly capable machines and systems offer us a way to provide far more affordable access to expertise,” said Daniel Susskind. We are going to see more change in the next two decades than we have in the last two centuries in the professions.

“But there are tasks we might not want these systems and machines to perform. Medicine is a particularly acute example – we wouldn’t necessarily want a machine to decide whether to switch off a life support machine.”

There is evidence a wide range of jobs are already being affected by AI. More than half of trades on global markets are now being conducted by algorithms, according to the Financial Times, and robotic devices are already being used for surgery.

Meanwhile IBM’s Watson – a super-computer that has analysed millions of pages of medical texts and tens of thousands of cases – is assisting in patients’ diagnoses.

A new robotic kitchen is one of the inventions bringing AI into the food industry, and in Japan, the world’s first hotel staffed by humanoid robots opened earlier this year.

Driverless cars are already legal in three US states, with the British Government investing millions in further developing the technology. That has led to optimism about the capacity of machine intelligence to improve quality of life and create new employment opportunities.

“So sadly perhaps taxi drivers will be replaced by technology,” said former science minister David Willetts. But 100 years ago there were people driving hansom cabs, we were using horse-drawn cabs to get around. As technology changes, so the types of jobs people do changes. I think in the future there will be new jobs that nobody has yet conceived.”

But there are fears about the social impact of jobs being replaced by machines and how new opportunities and wealth will be distributed.

A report last year by Deloitte suggested those fears are well-founded, predicting 35% of UK jobs are at risk from automation over the next two decades, with jobs paying less than £30,000 a year five times more likely to be displaced than those paying more than £100,000.

“We are at a dramatic point in the whole of humanity which is exciting on the one hand, but it’s also very dangerous,” said Michael Osborne, co-director of the Oxford Martin School programme of technology and employment.

“What I find alarming is that those who will find the burden of automation resting most heavily on their shoulders are the least skilled, and hence the least equipped to head into whatever new jobs are created.

“We need to make sure that this enormous bounty that is created from technology is shared even with those who aren’t necessarily going to be able to find work in the workforce of tomorrow.”

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