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Removing the fear factor from the ‘new machine age’

It’s safe to say that there were fearful reports aplenty on the topic of robots last week, with Bank of England Governor Mark Carney announcing on Tuesday in a speech that up to 15 million jobs would be ‘hollowed’ out as advances in automation are applied. Carney didn’t hold back when commenting on the robotics revolution: “up to 15million of the current jobs in Britain' – almost half of the 31.8million workforce – could be replaced by robots over the coming years as livelihoods were 'mercilessly destroyed' by the technological revolution.”

A few days later, British outsourcing company Capita announced a plan to cut 2,000 jobs after earlier this year replacing 60,000 workers with robots earlier this year. Capita’s plans include shoring up its finances to save approximately £50m a year via ‘austerity’ measures which include greater use of “proprietary robotic solutions.”

Carney and Capita’s announcements combined have hardly put made for festive tidings, but our own response to the initial ‘fear the robots’ sentiment, published in City A.M. and Computer Business Review last week, sought to re-assure both the British and global workforce that while change is definitely afoot, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Indeed, automation is the greatest social challenge for our age and we do need to be having a deep nationwide conversation about it. However, what Carney’s predictions don’t pick up on is that what will become automated will not just be what can be automated, but what consumers are comfortable with being automated. Simply throwing the word “proprietary” into robotic based solutions doesn’t mean that they can and will replace everything humans do, and everything we want to keep humans doing.

For example, why do we continue to buy expensive coffee from shops when it is possible for machines to make coffee in just the same way? And do people really want to hear medical diagnoses from a machine, or do they want to hear that news from a person, even if they know it’s very much possible for machines to figure it out and deliver the news?

The drive to automate will, in many cases, still be strongly facilitated by what we want machines to do, and what we want humans to do. Perhaps a smarter focus would be on managing how robots and humans can work together to deliver the best services that people are comfortable with.

Educating a New Workforce of Children (and robots)

The debate however also reflects and supports the need for the radical overhaul in education that is needed to build the future workforce. Currently we are educating children to be professionals in the 20th century where retention and cross reference of large volumes of knowledge has been deemed essential. These skills will become largely redundant this century.

Children need to learn how to create, empathise, imagine and cooperate to a much greater degree than they are currently able to. These are the most human of human skills and will be the last that automation approaches.

Automation will create a world of new opportunities as well as challenges. There will be new jobs like ‘drone pilot’ and ‘robot teacher’: we will need people to teach the robots - they’re just like kids.

The essence of jobs done by our children will be their humanity. As the curriculum begins to change, children will learn to become more collaborative, creative, and, most importantly, more resilient.

As 2016 has shown – the ‘robot fear’ is only ever one World Economic report, company announcement or Bank of England prediction away. But far from living in a “hollowed out” existence where half of us lose our jobs, we may just be on the brink of a massive shift in today’s workplace, and in shaping the workforce of future generations.

In 2017, we’ll be sharing with you the ways we are seeing robots and humans work together to provide new and better services, and how we see the landscape shifting to support the next generation of interesting and dynamic roles.