Robots put 15 million UK jobs at risk, warns Bank of England

Bank's chief economist, Andy Haldane, says huge numbers of jobs could be automated in the coming decades

Ben Chu
Thursday 12 November 2015 20:03 GMT
Chinese inventor Tao Xiangli modifies the circuits of his home-made robot at his house in Beijing, May 15, 2013
Chinese inventor Tao Xiangli modifies the circuits of his home-made robot at his house in Beijing, May 15, 2013 (REUTERS/Suzie Wong)

Some fifteen million UK jobs are at risk of being taken over by robots in the coming decades, according to calculations by the Bank of England.

Speaking to the Trades Union Congress in London the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, unveiled Bank research estimating the probability of a range of jobs being automated over the next few decades. By multiplying these probabilities by the number of people employed in each sector Mr Haldane came up with the aggregate figure of 15 million.

To put that in context there are around 31.21 million people in work in the UK today, out of a total population of 64 million.

Mr Haldane stressed that these estimates of the number of jobs that could be automated were “broad brush” and “may be far too pessimistic”. He also stressed that fears of the damaging impact of technological developments on employment had proven misplaced many times since the industrial revolution.

But his comments do reflect an increasing concern among some economists over the impact of the “rise of the robots” and other technological advances on employment levels.

“If these visions were to be realised, however futuristic this sounds, the labour market patterns of the past three centuries would shift to warp speed” he said.

Among the professions deemed by the Bank research to have a high probability of automation (around 70 per cent) are sales and customer service workers. Skilled trades people are also at serious risk. Those with a lowest probability (about 15 per cent) of being replaced by robots are the traditional professional occupations and managers and officials.

“Machines are already undertaking tasks which were unthinkable - if not unimaginable – a decade ago” said Mr Haldane. “The driverless car was science fiction no more than a decade ago. Today it is scientific fact”.

The internet giant Google has been showcasing a prototype self-driving car at its Mountain View headquarters this year. And self-service checkouts proliferate in UK supermarkets.

Mr Haldane also noted the potentially adverse impact of automation on inequality, pointing out that the risk was higher for jobs lower down the pay scale. “Those most at risk from automation tend, on average, to have the lowest wage” he said.

Mr Haldane, who is widely recognised as one of the brightest thinkers in the central banking world, suggested some possible policy responses to the rise of automation.

One was to focus on training people in areas of work where humans have an advantage over robots such as tasks that require high-level reasoning and leaps of imagination.

“In a world in which machines came to dominate tasks involving core cognitive processing, the importance of, and skill premium attached to, non-cognitive skills is likely to rise…yet our education system, at present, has a strongly cognitive slant” he said. “Perhaps in future that will need to change, with as much effort put into cultivating social CVs as academic ones.”

Another possible response suggested by Mr Haldane was to promote the mutual ownership of companies so that the economic profits of robotisation flowed to more people.

“These governance structures may allow a more equitable distribution of robotic rents and generate greater value for the companies themselves and for wider society” he said.

Ironically, in another speech earlier this year Mr Haldane suggested that modern corporations may actually be underinvesting in new technologies due to their ownership structures which encourage short-termist thinking by managements.

The predictions of a future robostic threat to employment contrasts sharply with the recent positive trend. The current employment rate - the proportion of people of working age in jobs – is 73.7 per cent, the highest since records began in 1971. The unemployment rate fell in the three months to September to 5.3 per cent, its lowest since April 2008.

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