Automation and the future of work Contents


Automating Work

1.The automation of tasks otherwise carried out by people has been a focus for civilisation for more than 2000 years. Waterwheels for processing grain and stone were recorded from 350 BCE in Syria and Egypt.1 The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century saw the wider adoption of automated technology, such as punch-card controlled looms, that would simplify tasks previously done by hand.2 Such changes were the subject of protest and sabotage as skilled craftsmen sought to prevent the diminishing of their trades.3 The modern rise of industrial automation and the use of robots in the workplace has trigged similar concerns on the potential impact it could have on the quality and availability of work, albeit so far without the destructiveness of the Luddite movement in the early 1800s.

The Impact of Automation

2.Rapid technological development since the first modern industrial robots in the 1960s combined with the lowering of product costs has triggered an array of studies and statistics, all of which warn of a significant proportion of jobs being at risk from an increase in automation. A 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School, widely cited in the oral and written evidence received by the Committee,4 predicted that 47 per cent of jobs in the United States were at high risk of automation.5 In 2018 a more optimistic report from the OECD predicted that while only 14 per cent of jobs in member states were highly automatable, half would be changed by automation.6 During our inquiry, the Office for National Statistics published its findings on the impact of automation, which put the proportion of UK workers at high risk of automation at 7.4 per cent, but with 64.9 per cent of workers at medium risk.7

Figure 1: Proportion of jobs at risk of automation

Source: Office for National Statistics, Probability of Automation in England 2011 and 2017, March 2019

Alongside each of these high-profile studies comes a wave of reporting that warns people will be losing their job as a result of automation, with no suggestion of when this will happen or what can be done. In 2015, the BBC News website translated Frey and Osborne’s study and work from Deloitte into an accessible tool that enabled the public to search for their job and ask whether it will be taken by a robot.8 Telephone salesmen, typists and legal secretaries using the site would find themselves at most risk, while schools inspectors, hoteliers and publicans could discover they faced the least chance of replacement.9

3.In contrast to the negative outlook that a worried worker might get from Frey and Osborne, ONS and the BBC, other commentators have been more positive about the potential impact that automation can have on the future of work. The Trades Union Congress have argued that an increase in technology in the workplace, including automation, could reduce the people needed to work and eventually lead to a four-day working week.10 Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, who has previously warned of 15 million people affected and the hollowing-out of mid-skilled tasks11 argues that automation could bring about a new focus on better, more creative jobs and shorter working hours.12 While acknowledging the challenges raised in existing studies, the previous Government was “optimistic” about the impact of automation on the future of work on jobs and productivity, despite basing its predictions on the same studies negative studies we have cited.13

Our Inquiry

4.While there is little consensus about the full impact that the growth of automation will have on the workplace, there is no suggestion that it can or should be prevented from happening. Rather than producing a further study that warns of the effects that automation could have and adds to concerns, we have undertaken this inquiry to examine how businesses, workers and the Government should prepare for and manage this transition, and to consider the UK’s current and potential strengths in the automation sector. Our focus has been on physical automation—robotics and autonomous systems—rather than the wider role of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has been considered in detail by an ad hoc House of Lords Select Committee that reported in 2018.14 Our inquiry includes consideration of the skills and retraining that will be required to deal with a more automated workplace, but we heard throughout the inquiry that there needs to be more action to improve the pipeline of people interested and able to work with automation. We welcome the work of the Education Select Committee who have examined this challenge in their recent inquiry into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.15

5.We invited evidence from businesses, trades unions, universities and other interested parties on the impact of automation on the quality and availability of work, the role of Government in reskilling, the effect it is having on businesses and the potential it has for productivity, growth and reindustrialisation. We also sought evidence on the opportunities for the UK’s tech sector and academia to become a world leader in automation technologies. We received 39 pieces of written evidence and held four oral evidence sessions, hearing from robotics developers and manufacturers, businesses who have been at the forefront of automation, trades unions, leading robotics academics and experts on the world of work, including from the newly formed Institute for the Future of Work.

6.At the start of our inquiry, the Committee visited Tokyo and Kitakyushu in Japan to examine the country’s role as the world leader in industrial robotics and a nation that has embraced automation as both necessary and desirable to meet the challenges faced for the future of work.16 The Committee also held a private briefing with Professor Mark Kennedy of Imperial College London and visited Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaboration between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. Our work has also been informed by earlier visits to the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Ansty and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, both part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. We are grateful to all those who contributed to our inquiry.

1 Adriana de Miranda (2007),Water architecture in the lands of Syria: the water-wheels, L’Erma di Bretschneider, pp 37–8

3 As above.

4 See, for example, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (AFW0008); Work and Equalities Institute, University of Manchester (AFW0015); Unite the Union (AFW0010)

5 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, The Future of Employment, (Oxford, 2013), p 38

7 Office for National Statistics, Probability of Automation in England 2011 and 2017, March 2019

8 Will a robot take your job? BBC News, 11 September 2015

9 As above.

11 Speech by Andrew G Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, Ideas and Institutions: A Growth Story, 23 May 2018; and Speech by Andrew G Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, Labour’s Share, 12 November 2015.

12 Speech by Andrew G Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, The Creative Economy, 22 November 2018; and Bank of England Close to Endorsing the Four-Day Week, Gizmodo, 11 June 2019.

13 Q275 [Stephenson]; and, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (AFW0008)

14 House of Lords, Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 100

15 Education Committee, Inquiry into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Session 2017–19

16 See Annex for details of the visit programme.

Published: 18 September 2019