In America, Walmart recently announced it is building warehouses run by robots. "The technology is impressive," the superstore boasts. "Equally impressive are the results."
In Britain, Ocado (a company that develops automation systems) orders are already sorted by machines equipped with an astonishing array of grabbers, ready to pluck and pack everything from bananas to frozen food.
Humans, of course, only need one grabber: the hand, with its unmatched combination of dexterity, strength, and temperature and pressure sensing capabilities. But people also get tired, bored, need to take breaks, want holidays, pay rises, promotions, and get sick and have to quarantine. None of that applies to robots. So post-Covid, will the robots be coming for your job, too?
It is certainly true that pre-Covid it was the lowest paying jobs that were most trampled on by the march of automation. We are all familiar with the disappearance of the supermarket checkout assistant: between 2011 and 2017, a quarter lost their jobs in the West, replaced by machines that were at first annoying but soon became second nature.
During the pandemic, automation has come for many other low-paid roles, from hotel check-in staff to bank clerks to toll collectors. Such jobs are never coming back.
Optimists tell happy stories of those made redundant ‘upskilling’ and moving on to better things. Sadly, that is largely fantasy. Those losing out to automation don’t climb the ladder; they tend to slip down.
PAs and sales people displaced by computer assistants that can communicate in any language with an astonishing appearance of ‘understanding’ (thanks to recent advances in AI) only end up in other jobs at risk.
If that sounds blase, it is not meant to. Journalists are also up against it, as natural language processing allows machines expertly to translate, summarise and write the words we thought were the preserve of the human creative spirit. Fighter pilots? They can forget it, too: the Pentagon has already run dogfights in which artificial intelligence thrashes flesh-and-blood Top Guns, and a glimpse of the RAF’s next-generation Tempest shows what its real job will be: helming a team of Lanca (Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft) – unmanned, of course. As for those city traders? "Two decades ago, we had 500 people making markets in stocks," Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon explained in 2018. "Today we have three.
Careers have expiry dates too
From law to accountancy, automation is on the rise in the white-collar world. Salary, it turns out, is no insulation. Computer coders are prized today, but for how long? Coding, after all, is just another language.
Before the pandemic took hold, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggested that, in the rich world, 9 per cent of jobs were at high risk of automation. Global management consultancy McKinsey went further. In a 2017 report in said: "About half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could potentially be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. That amounts to almost $15 trillion in wages."
In the UK, estimates of jobs at risk range from 7.4 per cent to just under a third. But even the lower estimate amounts to 1.5 million jobs. And Covid, research suggests, has only "accelerated the pace of technological change".
The good news
Yet there is a good news: the vast majority of jobs will not disappear but simply change, and there will be no reason to mourn most of what is lost. Will teachers or doctors care if they can spend time with students or patients instead of paperwork? Unlikely. Studies suggest workers waste 40 days a year on drudgery. In fact a majority of employees actually yearn for automation to take some of the pain away.
Should we choose to invest in them, robotics and 3D printing might also allow the West to reshore manufacturing, cutting carbon costs and securing supply chains whose fragility has been dramatically exposed by the pandemic.
But we need to have the courage to invest as other regions are. Data from the International Federation of Robotics show that the number of industrial robots worldwide has almost doubled, to 2.7 million, in the past five years alone. But while China installed 140,500 last year, in Britain the total was fewer than 2,000.
Reluctance to embrace the new is understandable. From the printing press to the power loom, automation has historically cost countless thousands their livelihoods. As the economist Carl Frey points out, many people never recover. "Three generations of Englishmen were made worse off" by the industrial revolution that started in 1770, notes Frey. The Luddites were right. Not till the 1840s did economic benefits trickle down.
But the risk of not embracing automation is arguably far greater – of productivity stagnating when we need workers more than ever. As our society ages, we will have fewer workers – about 13.5 million fewer in Europe by 2030 – even as our population grows. Can we really afford to let our GPs or police officers spend so much time filling forms then?
As we emerge from this disease-driven slump, we are unlikely to have a choice. A recent analysis titled ‘Forced Automation by Covid-19?’, written by two US economists, said that since the 1980s jobs lost in recessions have been "substituted by technology during the recoveries, leading to ‘jobless recoveries’". There is no reason for this recovery to be any different.