Future of work illustrative image from E&T October 2017 cover

The future of work (if the robots don’t take it all)

Image credit: Alamy

Are robots really coming to take all our jobs? What will work look like in the future?

“My father was fired. He was technologically unemployed,” Woody Allen explained in an early standup appearance in 1968. “My father worked for the same firm for 12 years. They replaced him with a tiny gadget this big that does everything that my father does but does it much better. The depressing thing is that my mother ran out and bought one.”

The workforce has feared machines to some extent ever since the industrial revolution and the original Luddites’ violent reaction to it. This time it’s the rise of robots, artificial intelligence and related technologies that’s worrying governments, workers and even industry leaders. There have been some truly dire warnings, Analyst group PwC estimates automation will take 40 per cent of US and 30 per cent of UK jobs by 2030, for example. Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane has said that up to 15 million jobs in Britain could go to robots. 

Graphic showing jobs at risk from automation

Jobs at risk from automation

Image credit: E&T

It’s being taken seriously, too, by industry leaders from Bill Gates (robots should pay taxes) to Elon Musk (AI will lead to world war three). Governments have started to seriously think about industrial and fiscal policies to slow down the march of the robots, as well as position nations to take advantage of what could be the next big industrial revolution.

The latest politician to raise these concerns is Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said in his party conference speech that automation is “a threat in the hands of the greedy, but it’s a huge opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole.”

“We won’t reap the full rewards of these great technological advances if they’re monopolised to pile up profits for a few,” he said. 

It’s not all doom and gloom. In a survey by consultancy Capgemeni, AI created new roles in 75 per cent of large companies implementing it and nearly as many can attribute a 10 per cent rise in sales to AI. A consumer survey sponsored by microelectronics design company ARM found 61 per cent thought AI and more automation will improve society rather than destroy it.

In the latest issue of E&T we explore what work will be like in 10, 20 or even 30 years’ time. Will it be all bright and shiny with augmented reality communications, delegating to your AI assistant and robots doing all the most boring tasks to leave you to focus on the more interesting challenges? Or will everyone be thrown out of work, made redundant by cheaper, cleverer and more efficient hardware and software that never tires, never asks for a pay rise and never gets drunk and passes out in the stationery cupboard at the office Christmas party?

We take a look at progress in the world’s 20 most disruptive technologies and meet 10 millennial shakers and movers. After the millennials will come the ‘Realtimers’. Find out what they will be like to work with, how they are receiving an education through Minecraft mods and what today’s children will one day be like to work with. Are you safer from automation than Woody Allen’s father? Tim Fryer looks at the potential for engineering design software to find out if the end is nigh even for engineers, too.

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