The future of work ‘means employees and robots operating side by side
Sir Martin Sorrell – Chief Executive of WPP
“We think about automation and robotics as part of the productivity conundrum,” said Tom Athron, group development director at the John Lewis Partnership, who insisted the increased take-up of industrial robots could comfortably create as many new jobs as it replaced. “It’s not just a way of doing things for less, it’s an opportunity to drive growth and look for new revenues. When we think about automating a warehouse, for example, it allows us to operate with fewer people and at a lower cost but also to offer new services to our customers.”
“When we talk about technology – be it AI, virtual reality or whatever – it’s very easy to paint a picture of a dystopian future,” he said. “Humans and machines together will always be better than humans or machines alone, and if you can design your business so it takes advantage of human-machine interaction, you have the best of both.
“There will always be demand for something more emotional than a computer can provide, and I’m betting the future of the John Lewis Partnership on that. Humans will always value connecting with people in an emotional way, and that’s particularly the case in something like retail.”
The pace of automation continues to accelerate.
As People Management recently reported, it has been estimated that one in six public sector jobs in the UK could be automated by 2030. And recent developments in automation threaten traditional white-collar jobs, from journalism to financial analysis, as well as blue-collar care, retail and hospitality roles.
There is little prospect of automation slowing, according to the panel.
Ian Funnell, managing director of ABB, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial robotics, pointed out that most SMEs have not even begun to consider automating tasks currently carried out by humans, which means the untapped potential is vast.
ABB, said Funnell, has pioneered a “you-me” robot that works alongside humans, allowing them to perform value-added tasks while increasing overall efficiency – when it came to putting together electronic circuits, for example, this meant a far more productive factory without displacing human labour.
“It’s an urban myth that every time you put a robot in place, you lose a job,” said Funnell. “It doesn’t have to happen like that. We assume we will have mass unemployment [as a result of automation] but I know lots of businesses that are able to bring in robots and retrain people to work alongside them.
Chris Allam, managing director for future programmes and services at BAE Systems, agreed, adding that there were “fewer start-ups in the UK in automation and robotics than any other country, and yet we’ve got the best engineers”.
According to Annie Makoff, research from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) and CV-Library indicates that automation and AI are, so far, is not putting UK jobs at risk.
Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of the 1,000 manufacturing professionals polled said they had never witnessed job losses as a result of automation. A further third (37 per cent) said job creation actually increased due to the introduction of robots or automated processes.
Nearly three-quarters of the manufacturing professionals surveyed said they felt the public are being scare-mongered into believing robotics are replacing jobs, and 52 per cent admitted there was ‘resistance’ from staff when implementing automated processes. Four out of five manufacturers said more should be done to promote the benefit of workplace automation.
Steve Barraclough, CEO of the CIEHF, said robotics and automation were regularly given a “bad name” – despite their “significant contribution” to upskilling employees. Because automation requires programmers and maintainers in areas where they may not have previously been necessary, the field of automation presents a “real opportunity” to businesses and manufacturers embracing change, he insisted.
Guy Kirkwood, chief operating officer at Uipath, said: “All this panic about robots stealing jobs makes for good headlines but it is a myth. The reality is that automation and robotics are working hand in hand with people. Rather than taking jobs, the technology is shouldering the burden of the repetitive tasks on which many employees spend so much of their time.”
But the CIEHF study indicates that automation is a real threat to jobs. A PwC report found that 30 per cent of UK jobs are under threat due to developments in artificial intelligence. It predicts that 2.25mn jobs in the wholesale and retail sectors are at ‘high risk’. Jobs are also at risk in manufacturing (1.2mn), administrative and support services (1.1mn), and transport and storage (950,000), said the report.
Meanwhile, a US-based study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that automation in manufacturing led to an average loss of 6.2 human jobs between 1990 and 2007 and, last week, Capita Resourcing revealed that 67 per cent of UK employees feared automatic would result in “less friendly” workplaces.
Annabel Jones, HR director at Automatic Data Process Ltd, called on employers to respond to the UK market’s fear of automation – regardless of whether automation replaces jobs or not. “Employers should ensure they are not over reliant on technology and still build a human connection with their employees, offering an adequate amount of workplace support and encouragement,” she added.
Interaction between humans and robots in the workplace: Is the law fit for purpose?
According to James Froud, an employment partner at Bird & Bird, the ability for machines to think and learn like humans – is a potential game-changer that may seriously destabilise employment opportunities, economic growth and, ultimately, our society as a whole.
Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2017 suggests that managing technological change is a more important challenge for labour markets than globalisation. And this provokes many areas of legal interest, not least from an employment law perspective.
We know that robots are capable of creating offensive environments, as was seen last year, when Microsoft’s chatbot, Tay, caused controversy by learning some of the less savoury vernacular used on Twitter. However, the law, as drafted, does not cover the automated acts of robots, because they are not a ‘legal person’ in the eyes of the law.
Against this context, perhaps lawmakers will need to look at narrowing the definition of redundancy, giving robots some form of legal personality or regulating the circumstances in which a robot may be introduced to the workplace.
Undermining social protection systems
Disruptive technologies and AI have caused stable long-term jobs to give way to the ‘gig economy’. This has created a much larger pool of workers who do not benefit from traditional employment rights, suggesting that clever machines are undermining social protection systems (such as employment laws, which are intended in part to provide job security).
We have already seen evidence of the unrest and legal uncertainty this can cause, with industrial action being triggered in public transport services, and legal challenges against Uber and Deliveroo.
Should we be looking to provide greater legal protection to those forced into ‘gig’ labour?
We are fast approaching the point at which we, humans in a civilised society, need to decide what we want.
According to Annie Makoff, the rise in robotics could lead to a modern-day industrial revolution, forcing governments to legislate for human job quotas and alter traditional employment law frameworks.
The International Bar Association in its report into the legal implications of rapid technological change, lawyers from the association refer to an “industrial revolution 4.0” which involves the increase of robotics across the production and service sectors, and cites Amazon, Facebook and 3D printing as “pioneers”.
Writing in the report, Gerlind Wisskirchen, lead author and employment lawyer in Cologne, said: “What is new about the present revolution is the alacrity with which change is occurring, and the broadness of impact being brought about by AI [artificial intelligence] and robotics. Jobs at all levels in society presently undertaken by humans are at risk of being reassigned to robots or AI, and the legislation once in place to protect the rights of human workers may be no longer fit for purpose.”
Technology has traditionally increased labour productivity and created new, arguably better, jobs. But growing computer intelligence means greater uncertainty over future job creation.
There is little doubt that policy decisions will need to be taken and the law shaped for a new reality. In that context, the employment law landscape is inevitably set for change.
According to Ben Gibson, managing associate at national law firm Bond Dickinson LLP, unless policy makers chose to adopt an interventionist policy against automation, market forces and economic imperatives are likely to result in a big uptake of such technologies. Predictions of job losses due to automation, were therefore “persuasive” he said.
The UK government is rising to the challenge.