In Brief
A new study suggests that as many as four million human workers could be replaced by robots over the next decade. The question is, can we find new roles for these people to fill?

Bots for Business

Robots could replace human workers in up to four million jobs in Britain over the next decade, according to research conducted by UK market research firm YouGov on behalf of the Royal Academy of the Arts. This accounts for 15 percent of the workforce in the country’s private sector.

Researchers quizzed business leaders on how they see automation and artificial intelligence affecting their industry over the coming years. Over 20 percent of employers in finance, accounting, transportation, and distribution stated that they expect more than 30 percent of jobs in the field to be automated by 2027.

We’re already seeing more robots enter the workforce, from robot construction workers to drones that can deliver vital medical supplies. New technology is offering up benefits to the world of work that simply can’t be ignored, but it’s crucial that we consider the impact that it will have on society as a whole.

Chiefly, businesses have to make sure that the millions of workers who are replaced by robots and other automated systems aren’t left behind.

Me and the Machine

Many robots are simply better equipped to perform menial tasks than humans are. They don’t get bored, they can be designed for a specific purpose, and if they break, they can generally be fixed with relative ease. We simply can’t compete on a level playing field — but we can work alongside our synthetic colleagues.

Robots can raise overall productivity by doing the dirty, difficult, or otherwise unpleasant jobs that human workers would rather avoid. This frees up those people to perform tasks that require a level of judgement or original thought that a robot would not be capable of providing. Many experts would argue that we can have the best of both worlds.

“The UK must make the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies offer,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of British national trade union federation the TUC, speaking to The Guardian. “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.”

There have been several different solutions outlined in response to this problem. Some argue that a tax on robots is the best way to ensure that no one is left unable to support themselves, while others would push for universal basic income to become the norm.

The biggest question is how quickly automation is going to be adopted. If it’s a steady process, it will be easier to transition human workers in other roles to help take advantage of increased productivity. If it’s sudden, this will be much harder — and as many as four million workers in Britain, and millions more worldwide, stand to be stuck in a very undesirable situation.