As automation engineers, we're very interested in that whole automation vs human jobs thing. So it's with great delight that we read a new report from accountancy firm PwC, which pretty much chimes with our thoughts.
PwC's investigation has found that automation will actually CREATE a lot of new jobs which only humans can do. And those jobs are likely to be loads more fun and fulfilling than the boring, repetitive stuff the robots are left with.
PwC say that automation will cause a production boom, which usually means brand new industries (with lots of fun new jobs!) springing up everywhere. It all sounds pretty great, to be honest!
But let's not get carried away. We shouldn't rely on this awesome-for-everyone scenario playing out automatically. If people are going to nab one of those cool new jobs, they need to upskill and adapt. Which isn't always possible without a bit of a helping hand.
To provide a splash of context, I'm going to switch focus from futuristic robot stuff to the Victorian era. Specifically, to Victorian textile mills.
See, there's nothing new under the sun. The kind of thing we're experiencing now has happened before. We can take heart from what's happened in the past - and use lessons from history to prepare our society for automation.
I'm sure you all remember doing the Industrial Revolution in school. You probably watched the same film I did, about children getting their fingers chopped off by mechanical looms and ponies getting stuck down mines (unless you're not in the UK. In which case, be grateful that such traumatic videos were not a feature of your education!).
Now, obviously chopped fingers and stuck ponies are not ideal - that's the 'lesson' bit, and I'll return to it later. But first, let's have a look at what those finger-chopping textile mills replaced:
Before the invention of machines to speed up and industrialise textile production, all clothes were made by hand. People working in 'cottage industries' would spin yarn, weave cloth, and tailor garments. Charming...but slow.
With inventions like the Spinning Jenny, Arkwright Frame and other machines, textile and clothing production could be mechanised. This made the process one hell of a lot speedier, one hell of a lot less labour-intensive and one hell of a lot cheaper.
Textile factories sprang up, producing tons of cloth every year. Suddenly, the country had more cloth than it had ever had before - and we needed to find something to do with it.
So, up popped the fashion industry.
Before the Industrial Revolution, fashion had been a rare and luxurious phenomenon, enjoyed by only the very wealthiest in society. But the Industrial Revolution made it available to all.
A HUGE industry based around designing and selling clothes began - bringing hundreds of thousands of jobs with it. Shops and shop assistants were needed to sell the clothes. Models were needed to...well...model the clothes. Whole magazines were launched, to tell people about the clothes ('Vogue' was founded in 1892).
The takeaway here is that, yes, mechanisation changed the textile industry (and others ) beyond recognition. It was a huge - seismically huge - shift in the way the UK worked.
But the increase in production gave the economy the biggest boost it's ever known, which led to the creation of whole new industries - and loads of jobs!
So far so good. Now for the tricky part...
If we apply the basic idea I've just described blindly to the Automation Revolution, the future seems bright. Those dreaded 'bots will take over the boring, soul-destroying stuff. And they'll do it so well that we'll all be rich and humans will find oodles of new, creative, fulfilling jobs. Hooray!
But let's be honest. Nobody who knows anything about history thinks of Victorian Britain as a Utopia. it would be silly not to also learn from what the Industrial Revolution did wrong.
Which brings me back to those children with chopped-off fingers. The kind of social issues that the Industrial Revolution brought with it have an eerily familiar ring when compared with current worries about automation.
Remember all those people charmingly (but slowly) weaving cloth in their cottages? They all lost their livelihoods. Thousands of independent spinners and weavers and tailors found all of their trade passing over to a few big factories.
Now, some of those people were adaptable and resourceful and found ways to take advantage of the new economy - moving to the cities and getting jobs in the burgeoning haberdashery shops, for example. But not everybody could do that, and there were no failsafes in place to help those who could not adjust.
So, during the Industrial Revolution, the entire textile industry flowed into the hands of those few individuals rich enough to set up textile mills.
Those people got richer and richer, while their workers (including children as young as five) laboured for low wages in conditions which were often horribly unsafe.
This stuff had never been an issue on this kind of scale before. So it took a long time and a lot of campaigning before legislation protecting workers and banning child labour came in.
We are more protected from bad working conditions now. But it's important to recognise that greed can get the better of people when revolutions like this come along. And that can have a seriously wide impact.
So what's the takeaway, here? What can we learn from the Victorian textile industry?
Technological advances, when applied to industry, increase production. This can boost economies, and create whole new industries for humans to flourish in.
However, unless failsafes are put in place to protect human workers from the greed of the unscrupulous, automation may not benefit everyone in the way that it should.
If we heed the lessons of the Industrial Revolution, we should start working out measures to ensure that human employees can upskill in order to adapt to this changing economy.
If we do it right, automation has the potential to be really positive for our whole society! But that outcome won't just happen all by itself.
A bit of a mixed bag, then! But the potential is there for automation to be a really wonderful thing, for everyone! We just need to make sure we're all doing our bit to steer the Automation Revolution in a socially responsible direction.