The fear of swathes of jobs being lost to Artificial Intelligence and the digital economy has been rife over the past decade. The widely cited 2013 paper, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation, states:
“According to our estimates, around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk – i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.”
The High Street
Many jobs, in fact, entire industries have fallen prey to the internet. Anyone over 30 will remember visiting the video/DVD store on a Friday/Saturday night and being surrounded by couples engaged in the familiar ritual of being unable to agree on what to watch. As at the time of writing, only one ‘Blockbuster’ remains on the planet, in Bend, Oregon. Tourists and nostalgia hunters flock to the store.
In the UK alone, Blockbuster employed around 4,000 people. Their jobs became redundant as consumers rejected leaving the house to pick up a DVD and instead chose to stream films from the internet.
The High Street is facing an uphill struggle in the face of e-commerce. The retail industry employs three million people in the UK. Over the past year, 60,000 jobs have been lost as stalwart chain stores, such as BHS, lose the battle to internet shopping.
Women are the most vulnerable to the changing nature of the British High Street. A 2016 survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that about half of retail employees were low-paid, and two-thirds were female. Although many jobs are created by e-commerce (ONS data by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce found that 40,000 extra warehouse roles have been created during the past seven years), most of these new roles have gone to men. Of the 108,000 retail jobs lost, three quarters were filled by women.
Automation of manufacturing has cleaved a road of ruin into many communities around the world. The consequences have been grave – President Trump supporters, Brexit backers, and France’s gilets jaunes protesters are often (but not always) from areas hit hard by the loss of blue-collar work.
Are office workers next?
Machine learning has transformed many white-collar jobs. Take disclosure review. Every employee who has a smartphone is carrying around the equivalent of a 1990s supercomputer in their pocket/bag which is constantly used for communication. Add to this emails, word/excel files, Slack etc., in the event of civil litigation, solicitors can be faced with millions of documents which need to be checked for relevancy and privilege. However, with the introduction of Technology Assisted Review (TAR – also know as Predictive Coding), what was once a mammoth task can now be largely automated, with solicitors only required to check a small proportion of documents to establish what is disclosable to the other party. TAR has been used for many years in the US, and in Pyrrho Investments & others v MWB Property & others  EWHC 256 High Court Master, Master Matthews stated there was nothing in the Civil Procedure Rules or Practice Directions disqualifying Predictive Coding.
AI is already replacing low-level, repetitive jobs. For example, the Financial Times recently reported that certain customer support jobs at Aylesbury Vale District Council have been transformed by the council’s machine learning system — provided by Digital Genius. Employing machine learning has enabled the local authority to leave two vacant positions unfilled. However, eight people remain.
Richard Baldwin’s The Globotics Upheaval warns that automation will have a dramatic effect on white-collar work, especially at the lower level such as secretarial duties, customer service, and clerks. Just as China benefited from the Western world’s outsourcing of manufacturing, India is likely to be a winner as office work automates, given its army of tech-savvy, well-educated youth.
Is it all gloom and doom?
The UK’s unemployment rate sits at 3.8%. In 1997, a time when the internet was still in its infancy and Amazon was one year away from launching in the UK, unemployment was at 7.2%. In America, unemployment was at 4.7% in 1997 but has fallen to 3.9%.
In 2015, David H. Autor, Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a paper Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation. In his highly informative TEDx talk, he points out that most jobs demand a “multiplicity of skills”, for example, technical expertise and intuitive mastery, brains, and brawn. It turns out that automating some parts of a task does not eliminate the need for other skills connected with the job – in fact, it often increases their economic value. For instance, ATM machines took away much of the bank teller’s job of handing over cash, but it subsequently increased the value of their ability to deal with customers and sell more products.
Autor states, “as our tools improve, technology magnifies our leverage and increases the importance of our expertise, our judgment, and our creativity”. To take law as an example; a client no longer needs to pay for a solicitor to trawl through thousands of documents prior to disclosure. Instead, that solicitor can spend their time creating a strategy to reach an early settlement which benefits their client.
David Autor closes his talk by suggesting that media and academics who proclaim the future consists of mass unemployment due to most jobs being automated are providing “arrogant” predictions. Just because we cannot imagine what creative solutions future generations will come up with to deal with the increase in AI through the labour market, does not mean our children/grandchildren won’t.
Maybe we need to have a little more faith in human ingenuity.
BDBF is a specialist and leading employment law firm based in the City of London.
Contact us on 020 3828 0350 for employment law advice.