Decades ago, robots began their march through Hollywood, most often leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Their real-life counterparts have been slow to catch up. The majority of current models still struggle to operate beyond factory floors, and lack the dexterity, both physical and mental, to displace skilled human workers, let alone rule over them.
But the speed of robotic progress is increasing. Machines are starting to cost less, and they can do more: according to the Boston Consulting Group, the market for industrial robots is about to boom, with sales set to double by 2018. Economists will be pleased, workers less so. According to an estimate from Oxford University, up to 35 per cent of British jobs could be automated away in the next decade. Jobs in the services industry – from cleaning floors to driving taxis – come under almost as much threat as those in manufacturing. A shift in the employment landscape is under way which is as profound as the shift away from agriculture – an industry which now employs just 2 per cent of workers in the rich world.
Those who remain employed will, economic theory runs, be vastly more productive – which may help solve the productivity puzzle across Europe and get growth rates moving in the right direction again. Machines can do the boring work, freeing people to use their one – thus far – supreme advantage: the brain. Britain’s investment in robotics, which is high – as well as its relatively unregulated economy, in comparison to those of France, Italy and Spain – means the country is well placed to take advantage of the coming transformation.
That will be little comfort to those who lose their jobs. Britain’s poor track record of helping workers transition from one career to another suggests resources might better be spent educating and training young people so that they complement robots, rather than compete with them. Certainly, a good deal more foresight is needed. By the time a child now starting primary school enters the workforce in 10 to 15 years’ time, it will be a radically different place. They must be “future-proofed”, as far as is possible.