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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Robots are Coming and They Will Steal Our Livelihoods

One in three jobs could be taken over by a computer or a robot in the next 20 years. Will this mean mass unemployment or will it release millions of people for new and more fulfilling means of employment?

They are coming to an office near you: job-gobbling robots that can do your work better and more cheaply than you can. One in three jobs could be taken over by a computer or a robot in the next 20 years. Most at risk are less skilled workers such as machine operators, postmen, care workers and professional drivers. The CEO of Uber, the ride-sharing company, recently said that his goal is to replace all the firm’s drivers with autonomous cars.

But it’s not just blue-collar workers who are under threat. The relentless drive to replace expensive humans with artificial intelligence poses a threat to better paid jobs too. People whose work requires uniquely human skills, such as teachers, priests, and social workers, are likely to be safe. But already in law firms, junior lawyers are being replaced by software that can scan reams of documents in search of evidence; and in hospitals the role of pharmacists is being taken over by drug-dispensing robots. What’s worse, the people gaining from all this disruption are those already rich enough to own the technology and algorithms. Many experts are warning of a ‘winner takes all’ world of billionaires and beggars which will lead to increasing social unrest.

That’s the view of the tech pessimists, but others would argue that all this automation anxiety is overblown. While advances in technology have always caused disruption, in the long run they have led to the creation of more jobs. To give an example, in the 19th century the industrial revolution wiped out jobs on the land as farm workers were replaced by machinery, but millions found new work in factories as they sprang up in the cities. Why should things be different with the AI revolution? The vastly reduced costs to business, say the optimists, will create a boom that will ultimately lead to millions of new jobs — jobs that we can’t even envisage yet. For many the release from the daily drudgery of work will lead to new and more fulfilling means of employment. And for knowledge workers such as scientists and doctors, AI will enhance their expertise, not replace it. There will always be a premium paid for human ingenuity and insight, and these are the very qualities that will ensure we will prosper from this latest development in human history.


For the motion

George Magnus

Economist, commentator and author

Economist, commentator and author, with a long career in the financial services industry, most recently as the Chief Economist and then Senior Economic Adviser at UBS from 1997-2012. He currently works also as an independent consultant, including to UBS.

Andrew Keen

Internet entrepreneur and author

Internet entrepreneur, author and regular commentator on all things digital. He is executive director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast and a columnist for CNN. He is the author of Digital Vertigo and the international bestseller The Cult of the Amateur, which has been published in seventeen languages. His latest book is The Internet is Not the Answer.
Against the motion

Walter Isaacson

Author and journalist

Author best known for his acclaimed, internationally bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. He is President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the managing editor of TIME magazine. He has also written a biography of Einstein and his latest book is The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Dr Pippa Malmgren

Co-Founder of H Robotics

Co-Founder of H Robotics, which makes stable flying platforms/drones for commercial applications. She runs the DRPM Group, which advises institutional investors on politics, policy and geopolitics and is on the advisory board at MIT. She served in the White House as President George W. Bush’s advisor on financial markets. Her latest book is Signals: the breakdown of the social contract and the rise of geopolitics.

Zeinab Badawi

BBC World News presenter

BBC World News presenter.