Four million jobs in the British private sector could be replaced by robots in the next decade, according to business leaders asked about the future of automation and artificial intelligence.
The potential impact amounts to 15% of the current workforce in the sector.
Jobs in finance and accounting, transport and distribution and in media, marketing and advertising are most likely to be automated in the next decade, the research says.
The Royal Society of Arts prediction of the impact of robotics on working lives is lower than some other estimates. Four years ago, academics at the University of Oxford predicted 35% of jobs could be rendered obsolete by new technology, while the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that up to 15m jobs in Britain were at risk from robots “hollowing out” the workforce.
The RSA is also more optimistic about the potential of robots and artificial intelligence than US tech billionaire Elon Musk, who has said AI was “the scariest problem” and “our biggest existential threat” because, he predicts, they will be able to do everything better than humans.
Research by the University of Oxford and Deloitte last year predicted more than 850,000 public sector jobs could be lost by 2030 through automation.
Asda operates a fully automated distribution warehouse in west London; white-collar tasks are being automated by PwC, the accountancy firm, and Linklaters, the law firm, which have been developing software robots that use artificial intelligence to learn to do research tasks usually undertaken by junior accountants and lawyers. Care homes are also trialling robots. One in Lincoln plans to use one to help residents remember daily necessities such as taking medication. The robot will also monitor their movements and habits as a nurse would. A care company in London, Three Sisters Home Care, will soon trial the use of robots for lifting people so only one care worker will be needed rather than two.
The RSA warns that artificial intelligence and robotics will “undoubtedly cause the loss of some jobs, whether it is autonomous vehicles pushing taxi drivers out of business or picking and packing robots usurping warehouse workers”. But it argues that new technologies could phase out mundane jobs, raise productivity levels and so deliver higher wages and “allow workers to concentrate on more human-centric roles that are beyond the reach of machines”.
The report also warns that increasing automation could deepen economic inequality and “demographic biases could become further entrenched”. It argues that to avoid this policymakers should take control of the development of the technology by creating an ethical framework to guide the behaviour of AI and to encourage investment in “benevolent technology that enriches the worker experience”.
It found that business leaders largely believed that new technologies were more likely to alter jobs rather than eliminate them. Benedict Dellot, the author of the report, said “AI and robotics could solve some of the gaps and problems in the labour market with low-paid, dull, dirty, dangerous jobs that nobody really wants to fill,” Dellot said. “The technology has the potential to fundamentally improve productivity levels in the UK.”
The prediction that millions of jobs will be lost to robots led the Trades Union Congress to warn against “shredding good jobs”.
“The UK must make the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies offer,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC. “Robots and AI could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need to talk about who benefits – and how workers get a fair share. The productivity gains must be used to improve pay and conditions for workers.”