Adam Corlett: Enough of the pessimism about the rise of the robots

Adam Corlett

Will all our jobs soon be replaced by robots? Recent headlines suggest so. But historical experience casts doubt on such sensationalism. Indeed there are reasons for us to encourage more automation, rather than worry about the harm it will do.

It is common now to hear theories about how new technologies are leading us towards a rapidly approaching future of low employment. A lot of this debate stems from the US, which has seen a worrying fall in labour market participation. But this is not true in the UK, where employment is at a record high. In fact, we have the opposite problem; business investment in new technology is low and productivity growth, which ultimately determines how well off we all are, has been almost non-existent in recent years. If we want wages and living standards to rise, we need more technology, not less.

Of course, technological change will have a greater impact on some jobs and industries than others, and we should be mindful of the disruption this can bring. Routine jobs, from assembly lines in factories to call centres, have declined the most in recent decades, driven by automation, offshoring and better education. However, new jobs have emerged in their place, from business services to social care. It is important that governments provide a strong safety net for those displaced by these labour market shifts, along with skills policies to help people move into new occupations.

If past experience is anything to go by, even the greatest advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will likely see as many jobs created as are made obsolete. So enough of the pessimism about the rise of the robots. Worry instead about a lack of progress across UK industry in embracing new technology, and how we can share the gains that productivity-enhancing automation can bring fairly across the workforce.

Adam Corlett is economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation