A recent study by thinktank Future Advocacy claims that automation will affect one in five jobs in the UK, with the highest impact felt in areas which have already suffered from deindustrialisation and unemployment. In the face of this seemingly inevitable threat from machines, how can the human workforce become more resilient?

We’ve all seen the dramatic headlines: “Robots ‘could take 4m UK private sector jobs within 10 years’” (The Guardian, 19/9/17) ; “They will take our jobs! Rising AI to threaten human jobs and cause major identity crisis” (The Daily Express, 28/08/17). Elon Musk struck a similarly gloomy tone when he said “There certainly will be job disruption. Because what’s going to happen is robots will be able to do everything better than us. … I mean all of us … This is really the scariest problem to me, I will tell you.”

Is he right? Will humans really be outperformed in all areas? How can we protect ourselves against the growing tide of automation?

Rise of the machines

Automation is nothing new. There are many industries in which robots already do a large proportion of the work, often where there is a potential threat to human life or health. Repetitive, labour-intensive or precision work is also performed by robots, particularly in agriculture or manufacturing, where they are cheaper, more efficient and tireless.

5 areas where robots are already used:

  1. Military services: robots are used extensively in the fields of bomb disposal and reconnaissance

  2. Car production: used for installation, painting, welding, robots can take on the dangerous or difficult jobs without risk of fatigue or ill health

  3. Space exploration: remote operated vehicles and robots can explore terrain, gather data about space and assist with repairs and maintenance

  4. Surgery: robot-assisted surgery has revolutionised the face of medicine, radically reducing the risks of surgery and even enabling surgeons to operate remotely through a computer-controlled interface

  5. Investigating hazardous environments: instead of risking human life, robots are deployed to investigate and collect data

However, while robots excel at work that is repetitive, requires precision or is labour-intensive, there is still a long way to go before they are equally capable of work which relies on intuition, empathy or reasoning. Professions such as teaching, creative writing, psychotherapy and design can consider themselves relatively safe from robotic takeover, until artificial intelligence is able to reach human-level machine performance.

The road to resilience

Clearly, the human workforce is still a long way from being made obsolete by machines. But the threat is being realised in many industries, and we need to be able to adapt and respond to it.

Recognise that humans need to have human skills

Current conventional wisdom states that, in order to become workplace ready, students should study the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as well as being able to code in at least one programming language. Although this may be true to some degree, it must not be to the detriment of the “humanities” subjects (languages, literature, the arts, etc.).

In a recent study, Google discovered that among the eight most important qualities of its top employees, STEM skills came last. The other seven were all “soft” skills, such as communication and listening skills, empathy, critical thinking and problem solving, and making connections between complex ideas.

So, while STEM subjects will give students the technical capabilities to perform in the workplace, it is equally important, if not more so, that students are able to develop human skills that enable them to interpret and interact with their environment.

Arguably, these are the skills that will make a difference in an increasingly automated workplace, not to mention necessary to build a fairer, more compassionate society.

Build adaptability into our psyche

Humans are creatures of habit. Change makes us uncomfortable; this discomfort grows in direct proportion to the length of time we stay in one place. The growth of the gig economy has challenged our perceptions of employment and how needs and services can be brought together; however legislation and regulation are still being applied in traditional ways, reinforcing the “security” of employment.

In order to survive in tomorrow’s world, workers will need to be much more adaptable to changes in their working life. They’ll need to build skills that enable them to react quickly to changing working patterns and job requirements. But perhaps more importantly, they’ll need to develop the ability to understand and cope with those changes.

See into the future

Although we can’t truly know what the future holds, workers will need to pay closer attention to what’s on the horizon. They’ll need to take responsibility for their careers, rather than trusting their employer to pave their way through promotions and internal job openings.

Similarly, workers will need sufficient understanding of artificial intelligence to identify threats and opportunities for their career. They’ll need to follow developments in the fields of AI, robotics and automation to spot the impacts, both direct and indirect, that might affect their career or financial security.

The same is true of governments and companies; to truly safeguard the human workforce, they need the same understanding of AI to identify opportunities where new jobs can be created. These jobs are likely to be better paid, since the lower paid jobs are likely to be automated, therefore the burden on social security may well be reduced.

Support the existing workforce

As jobs fall to automation, there is an existing workforce that must be supported to transition into different jobs. This has already been done very successfully in a number of manufacturing companies, who have recognised the value in keeping the knowledge and expertise of their current workforce. These companies have offered training and up-skilling to move their employees from the factory floor into the office, where their experience and knowledge can have a direct benefit on operational strategy.

The existing workforce can’t be left behind; they must be offered support, training and guidance to transform into the workforce of the future.

Tomorrow’s world

Automation for many jobs is a foregone conclusion. But we can make sure we’re prepared for the changes in the job market, employment and our careers by developing our human skills, our adaptability and our understanding of the possible futures. We can’t rely on others - this is our responsibility.