Reports that the Serious Fraud Office has signed up a ‘robo-investigator’ to work on financial cases marks a major development in battling crime, but also a warning about artificial intelligence.
It is this: good jobs are being replaced by robotics at an accelerating pace and across many walks of life. Now even sleuthing, which might have seemed a sanctuary for purely human endeavour, is being challenged by software. Sherlock who?
The clear message is that we can no longer rely on a developed mind being the guarantee of a career for ourselves or our children. We have known that in theory for some time, of course. But now it’s really starting to happen and in unusual places.
Business consultancy Deloitte suggests that technology has already led to a reduction of around 31,000 jobs in the legal sector. And in Japan, 10 robots now run a phone shop, and nobody has to make the tea or take a break.
But this win-win for costs and payers of services may be a lose-lose for employment unless we are very careful. Fortunately, higher education at least seem to have got the message, which on the face of it is good news for the next generation.
I have been taking my teenage son around various universities and been struck by just how attuned they are to the career potential from cyber security and computer sciences. But what about everyone else? People already in employment. Lawyers and accountants, for example? Or anyone involved in what comes under the large umbrella of ‘compliance’ work’, in other words ensuring that businesses behave, which is firmly in the sights of artificial intelligence developers?
Those at the sharp end of investigating company malfeasance, which includes forensic accountants, know the value of being able to analyse large volumes of data methodically, which artificial intelligence is now doing. Anything that frees up more of time for emotional intelligence to get to work, which is the human bit of understanding fraud, is welcome. So we are winners from artificial intelligence.
But in recognising a good for some, we must also see its dangers to others. If jobs start to disappear we need to be sure we can replace them or society as a whole is poorer, both intellectually and financially.
It is not just the jobs themselves, but that many of them are part of a career progression. Take a rung or two out of a ladder and it gets hard to reach the top successfully and safely.
The wider cultural question is also that we may soon need to find some way to re-frame value in our lives, and our system of rewards. Finland is already experimenting with a universal income, paying people £473 a month for two years. But will they wither from boredom or flourish from opportunity?
The answer to that question will be an important indicator of what we can expect as digital technology hollows out the work place. There will be few winners if more and more people go to university to acquire degrees (and debt) and then find there is no subsequent work that rewards their effort. This needs to be addressed by industry and politicians, not educationalists. Universities, after all, are in the business of teaching, not providing jobs afterwards.
And these questions need to be addressed now, before the problem of work disappearing becomes acute. It would be a rather cruel irony if humans end up left with the jobs robots don’t want to do.
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