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How Do We Protect Ourselves Against The Rise Of The Machines?

10/03/2017 13:29 GMT | Updated 10/03/2017 13:29 GMT

​Last month, we heard both Elon Musk and Bill Gates voice concerns over the pace of change within many sections of the labour market, with robots and automation making vast swathes of the workforce redundant. Driverless cars are putting taxi drivers, school bus drivers (accounting for over 660,000 US employees), and truck drivers, which provide work for approximately one million people in the US, at risk.

The concept is not new - the luddite movement in the nineteenth century lasted over five years but it is the speed of change that is surprising many. Over a century ago in the US, technological advances in both transportation and agriculture lead to the introduction of personal income tax.

Soon, it is estimated that most warehouses will be fully automated. Zero comfort breaks, the ability to work 24 hours a day and in built technology and sensors to limit the risk of accidents or collisions makes an attractive proposition to manufacturers and their clients. Reports have suggested that Amazon is set to open a new store, with virtually no retail assistants. Part of the skill in retail has been the ability to pick likely purchases from shoppers, but Amazon's use of AI in its recommendation web tool has been key to its ongoing success, and it will be interesting to see how quickly this can be replicated in bricks and mortar stores.

Some commentators are pointing to previous industrial revolutions - and how when one set of jobs are taken away these are replaced by a new set are created.

Robots can also perform surgery, diffuse bombs and automate restaurants. There are still some tasks which are better done by humans - such as the interpretation of data or some higher impact sales roles, which require which require some human empathy. Those jobs that demand both empathy, and social interaction, such as doctors and therapists, are likely to be performed better by humans. The creative industry is another where human skills, and the ability to step back and see the bigger picture / think outside the box, can override those of robots - for the moment!

So what is the answer? Automation is inevitable, but there is time to help educate and retrain those whose careers are at risk of being displaced.

Bill Gates has suggested that robots should be taxed to slow automation and allow communities that are most affected to adjust their earning abilities. This idea is sometimes pulled in with plans for a universal basic income - so that governments are prepared for a potential glut of revenue as income taxes freefall. European lawmakers in February rejected a proposal to impose a robot tax, although they did call for more legislation to regulate the rise of the robots.

For those on the other side, they argue that robots can create more jobs by increasing productivity. They also point out a close correlation between robot density and high employment in industrial nations, such as Germany.

But taxing progress in innovation and productivity will slow economic progress and could limit investment in society. We have all benefitted from improved living standards, and predictions of a far shorter working week due to productivity increases will appeal to one and all.

What does the future hold? AI is unlikely to cause sudden mass unemployment, but it will disrupt the employment market. Workers will need to learn new skills more quickly than they have had to in the past. And governments may need to make it easier for these workers to gain these skills.

Phil is a co-founder at Peakon, the leading provider of employee engagement analytics.