"China to replace its entire workforce with robots!" proclaimed a headline recently.
Most people clicked to the next story, but I've become increasingly fascinated by the endgame of robotics in the workplace. What I read confirms that we're still in the disbelief phase. We still treat the idea of robots doing our jobs as science fiction. And so do the journalists who write about it. But isn't it time to take it seriously? Let's start with Google.
Government by Google
Face it, without Google we'd all be lost. The phrase 'Google it' is now part of our everyday language, and the search engine is embedded in the way we work. In the workplace across the country people are conducting research by Google; in business, in education - and in government. There's no obvious harm in this. Or is there? What if much of our policy is, in fact, not created by in depth, thoughtful, considered, human analysis of cause and effect, but actually through research on Google? Think about it.
Made by Robots
Robots are now increasingly prevalent in manufacturing. They have improved efficiency and accuracy hugely. They have lowered the cost of household items and improved many aspects of the working day for millions of employees round the globe. There's nothing wrong with robots -- they can do the dirty, dangerous, repetitive jobs that previously were potentially detrimental to employee health and well-being. But robots are not something you can put back in the box. That's because they rely on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and we're on the cusp of an explosion in these areas that will make today's robots look very old-hat indeed.
The endgame of robotics is to achieve the so-called 'Technological Singularity'; that's the moment when artificial intelligence can truly think for itself, redesign itself, improve itself or build other robots that are better than itself, on its own, without human assistance.
We are nowhere near this point, but we need to act now to help the next generation cope with a new way of working, rather than cope with not working at all. Computers and mobile phones use machine learning when they recognise our usual activity. Spam email is automatically identified, Facebook uses facial recognition and Apple's Siri learns from our common requests. We already have driverless cars, ships, drones and wearable tech that learns and responds to us.
Whilst this advancement is great, such rapid and relentless technological progress is slowly eroding our ability to analyse, think independently, think creatively, innovate and debate constructively and persuasively. To keep up and cope with these 'technological rapids', we must look further ahead and plan and agree a sustainable business and government strategy. The emphasis must be on enterprise, innovation, creative thinking and financial education. Technology may be boosting our efficiency but it's condensing our ambitions. We're going to need all the human skills we possess, as computers will do everything else.
Businesses with only artificial intelligence
It's not just mechanical processes which are being taken over by computers. The nature of being an entrepreneur is changing. These days we see more young entrepreneurs encouraged to start a business before breakfast and sell it by dinnertime. These businesses typically have few employees and are bought by a huge conglomerate that eats them whole. Start-up to sell-up in a few short years. No real legacy, no history, no employees - just an idea with a brand attached. Remember that when Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion it only had 55 employees. Compare this to Eastman Kodak that as recently as 1990 had 141,000 employees. It was forced into bankruptcy in 2012, wiped out by digitisation, in particular Instagram - also bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion - with only 13 employees.
But why should we bother to build sustainable businesses with real employees anyway? Humans need training, offices, transport, holidays, pay, sick-pay, pensions, unions - computers don't. It does make me wonder why we are building all these new office towers. In 10 or 20 years will there be anyone in them?
What next for the human middleman?
The UK has a significant productivity problem. It's made worse by the current trend for low-paid jobs rather than capital investment - but low-paid jobs will at some point be on the way out. Robots are already so dexterous and intelligent that far from being confined to the factory floor, they can also do jobs like fruit picking, shelf stacking, cooking, as well as traditional office jobs. In fact, even the Bank of England's chief economist is worried by robots and the low-wage economy. And there will come a point in the not too distant future when robots can carry out face-to-face jobs too. And even if that's a way off yet, it's likely to be preceded by a shift in our attitude to using apps to replace this kind of social human interaction.
We must start to prepare our young people right now; help them learn to focus on their 'human' skills - things that artificial intelligence can't do: be creative, resilient and innovative; learn to take the data and use our human intelligence to filter it, analyse it and communicate with it. If we're going to avoid having millions of unemployed without the necessary skills to compete for the reducing stock of jobs, we need to act now. The technology is here. Today. If we want to be more than the dispensable middleman, then we'd better start acting right now too.