Robots for all!

Yesterday I took part in a fascinating Resolution Foundation discussion, Equity in the Age of the Robot. It was an apt day to be debating the impact of automation on jobs and equity, as the Tube strike probably left half the audience wishing those jobs were already being done by robots and the other half pleased the union is still holding out for the humans.

My contribution was to point out that although we can be concerned about the speed at which automation is going to be able to replace a lot of middling-skill, middling-income jobs, with all the transitional problems that brings, the UK economy needs more robots. That’s the message of the low labour productivity problem. Real wages can’t rise over the long term unless investment in capital and productivity improve. Having said that, we need to worry about

(a) the distribution of the productivity gains, and ensuring these aren’t all extracted by over-paid executives – perhaps thinking about robot ownership; and

(b) equipping people with skills that could be useful and managing the transition in the labour market better than in the past. As Conrad Wolfram pointed out in a recent article, we’re teaching children to be not very good and expensive versions of Siri when it comes to the maths curriculum; they need to understand how to solve quadratic equations but they key skill they need is not memorising and replicating that. Like Professor Alan Manning, I think we should not be resisting the robots but focusing on the institutional and political arrangements that ensure fair outcomes.

I highly commend the work of Michael Osborne, who was presenting new data for the UK showing which jobs are vulnerable to automation by 2020 – mainly in sectors like retailing, logistics, transport. (Here’s the paper he wrote with Carl Benedikt Frey, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?) The whole panel discussion is worth a viewing.

The books cited in the discussion were – of course – Bynjolfsson and McAfee 1 and 2,

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[amazon_image id=”0393239357″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies[/amazon_image]

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