BoE chief economist warns of robot revolution

Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, has called on the UK to initiate a skills revolution, warning that the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) may make many jobs disappear

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he warned that the growth in learning machines had the potential to make a huge number of jobs previously thought to be safe effectively obsolete. Calling it the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, Mr Haldane explained that unless alternative work could be generated through a skills revolution, many people would find that their skills were surplus to requirement. He drew parallels to the effect of mass production during the Industrial Revolution and the resultant social and economic upheaval:

'Jobs were effectively taken by machines of various types, there was a hollowing out of the jobs market, and that left a lot of people for a lengthy period out of work and struggling to make a living,' he said.

'That heightened social tensions, it heightened financial tensions, it led to a rise in inequality. This is the dark side of technological revolutions and that dark side has always been there.'

The growth in recent years of technology centred on machine learning – including speech recognition, ‘decision tree’ programming, heuristic algorithms and natural language generation – has prompted a number of economists to warn of its potential impact on the future job market. In March of this year, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman drew criticism for comments he made warning that, due to a lack of manufacturing and a growing artificial intelligence industry, developing nations would experience mass unemployment unless they invested heavily in generating a skilled labour force. More recently, the Centre for London think tank published a paper warning that a third of jobs in London and other cities, mostly low- or medium-skilled jobs, were at high risk of becoming automated. Job sectors currently dependent on migrant labour - accommodation, food, construction, retail, and transportation – were likely to be hardest hit.

John Gikopoulos, global head of AI & automation and partner at Infosys Consulting, suggests that business leaders should become more actively engaged in generating a skilled workforce:

‘To combat the threat posed by automation, business leaders need to do more. It’s not enough just to understand the different technologies on the table; they should also understand what tech can do for their business, their customers, and crucially, their employees. That requires a shift in culture as much as it does the acquisition of new skills.

‘With the threat of AI ever-present, some question if we’ve got the skills conversation wrong. We are often fixated on core technical skills; from coding to advanced topics like data science and machine learning. But have we lost sight of the softer skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and applying insight to business strategy? AI can find facts and can even recommend prescriptive or proscriptive actions – but what it can’t do is formulate a watertight strategy based on the insights it discovers.  

‘We want business leaders to foster an atmosphere of experimentation and innovation, and constantly question how they can deploy smart technologies such as AI to solve today’s challenges. One thing is clear: the key to working alongside AI is doing so for the greater good of everyone – without threatening livelihoods.’

Report by James Bunney

James Bunney

James Bunney, Accountancy magazine and Accountancy Daily...

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