Britain Needs To Truly Understand The Coming Robot Revolution

In the 2016 London Assembly elections, I was shortlisted to go to the first round of candidate selections for Lewisham and Greenwich. One of the key aspects of my pitch was to turn London from one of the most toxic environments in terms of air quality to one of the best cities in the world, specifically by removing all diesel vehicles from London by 2021. One of those attending in the audience asked me, “take a taxi driver with their own vehicle, how are you going to convince them to do this?”. My response brought silence of the room; “I’d tell you that by 2021, your job will be done by a robot anyway, so you really should think about re-skilling”. After a few moments silence, one member of the audience asked me, “do you really think that will happen?”, and I answered with the affirmative. While automated vehicle technology is still relatively new, I strongly doubt that there will be many human taxi drivers left by 2021.

The taxi industry is not alone. In 2016, McKinsey the consultancy showed that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60% of all occupations could see 30% or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today”. This is an important fact; the potential automation of much of the UK’s current economy is an opportunity for significant productivity gains, but also an example of how much of today’s employment opportunities could be gone in a very short period of time.

Research from Graetz and Michaels using data from the International Federation of Robotics found that the use of robots within manufacturing raised the annual growth of productivity and GDP by 0.36 and 0.37 percentage points between 1993 and 2007, which represents 10% of total GDP growth in the countries studied and 16% of productivity growth. To put that in context, the report says that the “robotics have of late increased productivity by about 0.35% annually — or by about the same amount as did the steam engine, a classic example of a GPT, during the years 1850 to 1910”. The clear answer we should take from this is that automation and robotics is good for productivity growth and can help the UK economy grow, so we would be silly not to take advantage of automation in our industries.

There has been a failure to consider how this process of automation, the development of robotics and the extraordinary power of artificial intelligence, is changing society in the UK and how it will further change it in the future. The same McKinsey report shows that 78% of predictable physical work, 69% of data processing and 64% of data collection can be automated with current technology. These are jobs of the voters who are turning to Labour and Corbyn in droves, terrified of the loss of their stable jobs and an unknown future. The recent Uber argument is a great example and one I wrote on a few weeks ago; while Conservatives complain about the potential loss of 40,000 jobs if Uber were no longer able to operate in London, the company has already turned high skilled, well paid jobs into low skilled, low paid jobs and has the intent of eliminating driver jobs altogether. Labour have arguments and policies which these drivers will vote for; the Conservatives don’t.

It’s not just low-skilled workers at risk in the robot economy. High skilled and well-paid jobs such as accountants and a variety of banking roles are under great threat. Even doctors and surgeons are likely to be automated in the next 15 years. In 2016, surgeons at the Oxford University John Radcliffe Hospital used a remotely controlled robotic surgeon called Robotic Retinal Dissection Device (R2D2) to remove a membrane 100th of a millimetre thick from the retina of the right eye of a patient, successfully curing his blindness and resurrecting his ability to see normally. This was the first time a robot had been used to conduct an operation of the eye in medical history. Artificial intelligence will allow robotic surgeons and GPs to share millions of hours of surgeries and data from billions of patients, constantly learning and improving. A human surgeon would take 30 – 35 years of training to be at the top of their field. The process of diagnostics and developing new medicines will transform healthcare, but will leave humans more and more outside of the process. Ajan Reginald, CEO of Celixir who develop these technologies, recently said that “robotics and AI are removing the human constraints and physical limitations on surgery and placement of innovative medicines. With ultra-high resolution robotic assistance, we can now consider the optimal site to place stem cells in the eye, brain, heart to drive regeneration. Or where to place cellular anti-cancer therapies to kill cancers. In the future, AI will further remove the speed, complexity and precision limitations inherent in a human being driving the robotic arm”.

While extraordinarily exciting for the UK and transformational for the NHS, it will leave many traditional Conservative voters jobless and terrified of losing their position in the UK economy. Many young, middle class voters currently entering or in university studying to be doctors and accountants, will leave their studies finding robots and algorithms have taken their careers and with it their place in society. They will be stood alongside the children of taxi drivers and factory workers (in fact, alongside current taxi drivers, factory workers, doctors and accountants) in a country unprepared for mass employment created by the robot revolution.

As long as robotics and AI increase in effectiveness and ability (and the expectation is that improvement will be constant), more and more jobs will be taken by the machines and less and less new jobs will be created to be filled by humans. We have to start preparing for that new world, because it is coming and it is coming soon.