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AI could lead to “cliff-edge” scenario of mass unemployment, PWC warns

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The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) by businesses to replace workers could lead to a “cliff-edge” scenario where huge swathes of the working population suddenly lose their jobs as the technology reaches financial viability, the accounting firm PWC has warned.

The professional services firm said AI had the power to overhaul business models and could leave workers sidelined and companies struggling to adjust unless preparations are made now.

It said firms and the state must double down on their efforts to improve the education system and help workers retrain to ensure AI delivers the much-heralded boost to the UK economy.

Jon Andrews, PwC’s head of technology and investments, said: “There are different sectors that will be impacted in different ways.

“The vast majority [of workers] will not see the change happening to them and they will have a very different job by 2030. But some of them you can see coming and you can actually predict the changes.

“If you take the logistics world, there is going to be a period of time as we move towards autonomous vehicles where it will continue to be cheaper to have an old vehicle that is non-autonomous with a person driving it.

“Then, all of sudden, that will flip and the business case will change and it will be worthwhile making the investment in autonomous vehicles. So we will see a cliff in terms of jobs there going more quickly.

“We need to be prepared as a country on how we retrain people to think what other jobs those people can do ahead of that. That will be largely predictable because you will be able to predict and see that business case changing.”

Experts believe the rise of AI poses a threat to workers across the professions, from staff in fast-food restaurants to journalists, accountants and doctors.

Around 30 per cent of UK jobs are at high risk of being eradicated by AI by 2030, PwC has estimated.

Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates mooted the possibility of creating a robot tax in order to plug the hole in public finances left by the jobs destroyed by automation.

However, the rise of AI - coined the fourth industrial revolution - will also create new roles for human beings and could drive up productivity and bolster economic growth.

Jonathan Gillham, PwC’s director of economics, said: “It will lead to some sectors experiencing strong and rapid growth, but the job of the UK policy community is to help create the right labour force going forward to meet that.

“We assume that the cost of those workers will rise because skills are going to be quite rare, they are going to be quite niche, but they do have to exist.

“We need to upskill workers that are currently in the labour market and improve our education systems.”

Last month, computer scientists at Rice University in Texas developed a method to cut 95 per cent of computations required for deep learning and massive neural networks. 

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