Technology Is Creating Jobs, Not Just 'Stealing Them'

22/01/2017 17:14 | Updated 23 January 2017

Technology has been "stealing our jobs" since at least the Bronze Age, so it's surprising after all these years that any of us have a job to go to in the mornings. The tired old trope of machines stealing the bread from our children's mouths has been trotted out at intervals since the time of Ned Ludd (at least), and the reason it keeps getting an airing is simple: it plays on our fears and insecurities - and it makes great copy. This does not, however, make it true.

Last year Deloitte looked at census data dating back to 1871 to analyse the effect of new technologies on employment trends. The study, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Rybczynski Prize, concluded that far from being a job destroyer, technology is a job creation engine of unrivaled power.

The problem lies with the way we look at technology's influence on the labour market: it's easier to focus on the roles that are being made redundant, rather than to examine the new jobs - even new industries - created by new inventions. And the rise of bots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), so often touted as the power looms of the 21st century, perfectly illustrate how technology will bring exciting new job opportunities for us all.

My business is bots. Naturally, I'm incredibly proud of the ever-increasing complexity of AI and bots, and how they are seeing widespread adoption in a growing number of roles. But I also recognise that, inevitably, we'll see a withering of traditional roles in a range of professions - from stock brokers to insurance agents, customer service staff to lorry drivers. My own bot - Meekan by Doodle - is a scheduling assistant designed to take the pain of scheduling and diarising off our hands. Our aim is to help increase users' productivity but there's no escaping the fact that we are effectively looking to replace elements of personal assistants and office managers roles.

Of course, it's tough knowing that your job is under threat. But new technologies do not appear overnight, fully-fledged and as good as the humans they replace. They take time to evolve, which gives workers the time to themselves adapt - for example, by re-training or changing industry. We saw it before with the invention of the internal combustion engine. Over several years and decades horse-drawn vehicles dwindled along with the associated jobs such as smiths, farriers, carters, wheelwrights and the like. These workers re-skilled, or adapted their existing skills to new opportunities created by the automotive or other industries, and we need to help those facing current threats do the same.

How will this work in our own era? One place to look is the customer service industry, where bots are already helping with a wide range of enquiries and tasks, providing instant advice or swiftly resolving complaints. For more complex tasks, we are seeing the emergence of bot-human hybrids, where issues are escalated to a human whenever the nature of the enquiry is beyond the wit of the AI. So there will still be customer service jobs - albeit falling every year as the technology gets more sophisticated.

But here's where things get interesting. In order for bots to get better and to "steal" all those customer service jobs, we actually need to create an awful lot of new jobs. Essentially it boils down to a Turing-like test: how can we make AI so "human" that people will find interaction with them as useful as it would be with a human representative.

We're still some way from achieving this, although the technology is improving rapidly. Currently, we still have to script and code the bot's behaviour, but in the next year or so they will be able to navigate conversations on their own. But until bots are intelligent enough to learn for themselves, they need the right teachers - and this is where new jobs will be created.

The "rise of the robots" is creating an urgent need for people who work with language, be they grammarians and English dons, playwrights, journalists, or novelists. The bots of the future need to be, at the very least, engaging, friendly, intelligent, clear, precise, and on-message. They need to convey a brand's personality and, ultimately, they should be indistinguishable from real people, with all their little quirks, eccentricities of speech and character defining background stories. We can only build these bots by employing experts: well versed in writing stories and creating engaging characters.

The implications for the jobs market is evident: with many existing and new technology firms exploring how they can benefit from bots, it opens the door for graduates who traditionally have struggled to find a job that's relevant to their degree. It promises to put an end to that timeworn joke: What do you say to an arts graduate with a first-class degree? Big mac and fries, please!

Not only will this give English and theatre graduates new avenues after completing their courses; it also promises some very interesting new careers and job titles. I predict that in the next year or two, a technology firm will appoint the world's first "Head of Humanity", whose role it will be to ensure that the company's digital communications seem as person-like as possible.

And this is just in one section of the sprawling technology industry - bots and AI. Other developments will also lead to new job opportunities: including for people whose roles have been made redundant by new technologies.

The UK has never in its history had so many people in employment, so let's stop talking about robots stealing our jobs. Throw away the stone axes, and start learning how to forge bronze. It's what we've always done throughout humanity's history; it's what will happen with the latest technological revolution.