Susan Dalgety: Robots of the world are uniting to take our jobs

Workers of the world unite, today is Labour Day. Across the world, 1 May is a celebration of the working class and our contribution to the global economy.
Robots will be more common in the workplaceRobots will be more common in the workplace
Robots will be more common in the workplace

We keep the cogs of industry turning, while the bosses share out the profits amongst themselves. But for how much longer?

Every day, it seems, brings a new invention that heralds the end of traditional jobs.

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Driverless vehicles will make HGV and taxi drivers superfluous to requirements.

Robots will be more comfortable working in call centres than humans. They don’t need comfort breaks for one thing, and won’t flinch when they are told, for the tenth time that day, to “eff off”.

Burgers will be flipped by a machine, instead of a spotty youth.

And as we buy more and more online, we are all contributing to the death of the shop assistant.

Even so-called professional staff are not immune from this latest industrial revolution. The fourth, apparently.

Technology will transform lawyers’ offices, with artificial intelligence predicted to replace a large portion of their legal work – and fees. Imagine Edinburgh with no lawyers. Worse, a legion of poor lawyers.

But will this dystopian future, where robots rule the world and the only people in work are hairdressers and care assistants, come true, or is it just another media scare story?

The Scottish Government doesn’t know. It published a report a few weeks ago, grandly titled ‘Technological Change and the Scottish Labour Market’.

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It concluded that it there is “no consensus on the impact of new technologies will have on labour demand”.

Some jobs will be replaced by robots. But there will be new jobs created.

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And here’s the killer line – the report suggests it might not make economic sense to replace human labour, even when there is a robot that can do the job better.

Let that sink in for a moment. The future of work is a lifetime of cheap labour, with a robot as your line manager. Just like Amazon. Makes me (almost) glad I am stumbling towards my pension.

But wait. There is a hope. Not everyone thinks that Elon Musk, the PayPal founder and man who sent a sports car into space, is about to take over the world.

A group of eminent Danish scientists argued recently that robots will not replace us at work, because of five fundamental skills that only humans possess.

These range from our hands, which are so complex that no robot can hope to match our dexterity, to human reason.

Humans are so sensible, they argue, that we would decide not to fully develop robots and artificial intelligence, because of their potential to harm society.

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Or failing that, we would develop a set of regulations that would prevent those beastly robots exploiting us.

I applaud their human-like optimism, but seriously?

British workers did not have the protection of a legal framework for an eight-hour working day until 1998, when the then Labour Government introduced the Working Time Regulations.

Until then, we had to depend on trade unions, or a benign boss, to secure decent working conditions.

Based on bitter experience, workers may well have to wait 100 years for legal protection against the impact of new technology.

As for humans deciding not to develop artificial intelligence because of fear of what it might do to society, well that is not how human beings work. We are not that logical.

We didn’t douse out fire because it accidently burned down the village. We didn’t put the Spinning Jenny back in its crate because it put a generation of artisans out of work.

And we are abandoning high street shops without even a backward glance, as we shop until we drop on our phones.

The only thing we can be certain of is that the future of work is uncertain. Happy Workers Day.