David Coyne: Why we should welcome the rise of the robots

Self-service supermarket tills are replacing checkout staff.  Photo by Jeff Blackler/Rex/Shutterstock
Self-service supermarket tills are replacing checkout staff. Photo by Jeff Blackler/Rex/Shutterstock
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Neo-luddite inspired panic would have us believe an impending “Rise of the Robots” could decimate jobs as smarter, faster machines render humans redundant in the workplace.

Automation is not a new phenomenon, nor is leaping to conclusions without full consideration of the facts. What is new, however, is the pace of change that has already heralded the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, and that will utterly change the face of work.

It’s an often quoted soundbite that two out of three children starting primary school will have jobs that don’t exist today. The recent Cities Outlook report stated 230,000 jobs could be put at risk by 2030 from automation, and Scottish cities would face greater challenges than those in the south-east of the UK in the future. However, it also said much more than that. It pointed out that automation creates huge opportunities for positive change in our economy. It highlighted the example of the workforce of 1911, and used census data to show the number of people employed in laundries, and in domestic service, two areas virtually eliminated by the development of machines. It went on to say: “Generally, those jobs that are made up of routine tasks are at a greater risk of decline, whereas those occupations requiring interpersonal and cognitive skills are well placed to grow”.

So, is the rise of the robots a disaster in the making? It need not be if we understand the processes which are driving the continuing evolution of our economy.

The first thing to say is that the types of jobs likely to be displaced – sales assistants, retail cashiers, admin assistants and the others – are known to be the kind of jobs of which we have too many today. They pay low wages and offer little opportunity for those who work in them. It makes no more sense to bemoan the loss of retail jobs now than it would to have mourned the loss of domestic servants in 1911.

Concern that Scottish cities will face greater challenges than those in the South-East is hardly a new reason to press the panic button. Scotland’s devolved powers and responsibilities are still relatively new and need time to gain momentum.

In a world of technology and increased automation, we need to develop the three core qualities which make us uniquely human in order to thrive.

First collaboration; the mix of observation and questioning which allows us to compromise, problem solve and create solutions which are not necessarily logical, but which work in the context. Next, emotional intelligence; the ability to understand what is not being said, to read the face of a patient or customer and apply empathy to service delivery.

Finally, self-management; the ability for an individual to resiliently navigate the uncertainty of the future, and to make career and learning decisions frequently.

The good news is that the Curriculum for Excellence already recognises this, and develops the right habits of mind. But, it’s not enough. We still consign our young people to an exam factory from S3, with a focus on fact retention and repetition rather than fluid application.

Our learning system has to adapt so that people are introduced to the working world while they learn and develop job relevant skills. The rate of change in the world around us will become so rapid that a disconnection between education and skill development would be economic vandalism. We already have the most qualified generation in Scotland’s history and yet many struggle to find work.

The development of these three core skills is already happening in economies like Switzerland and Finland which have a completely different paradigm shaping the relationship between industry and education. Companies are not the dumb consumers of a labour product, they specify and get involved in the quality assurance in the curriculum, at both vocational and higher levels.

We need a partnership between industry and education, which takes as a role model those companies who have a deep corporate commitment to developing their workforce.

Seeing the future of work through a dystopian prism where robots cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, is counter-productive at exactly the moment the conversation between tech, education and business needs to be progressive.

David Coyne is Director of the Centre for Work-based Learning