Will the machines really take over the world?

Human hand shaking a robot hand

Arriving at Heathrow T3 after a very chilled out conference in Vienna last week (-8°C), I soon found myself at the end of a mammoth, snaking queue at border control. Only six of the 15 automatic passport readers were operating and just one human was checking travel papers the old fashioned way.

The line moved so agonisingly slowly that I asked one of the smiling border control ambassadors (sic) why there were so many machines out of operation. Her cryptic reply: “the border staff are too lazy”. I guess that means that artificial intelligence (AI) has gone full circle – the machines have learned how to be lazy. How long before they learn to go on strike, I wonder? Driverless trains may not be the nirvana Transport for London expects…

Anyway, guess whose ePassport failed at the automated gate again? These machines have a sense of humour also.

My battle with robotic border controls reminded me of a paper I’m working on that is assessing threats to businesses, consumers and workers from a whole range of macroeconomic factors, one of which is automation. 

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said that 15m jobs could be lost to robotics or AI. I have no idea whether this number has any credence, but it’s a good sound bite! If Mr Carney had been around in 1764 he may have said something similar – although the UK population was approximately 6.5m at the time, so it would have been a more modest 1.5m.

Why have I picked 1764? This was the year that the spinning jenny was invented by James Hargreaves, sparking the first Industrial Revolution. The ‘machine breakers’, a forerunner of the anti-technology Luddite movement from the 19th century, actually broke into Mr Hargreaves’ house to destroy his work. This was a group of people willing to take desperate measures to protect jobs. I would have liked to do some machine-breaking last week at the airport, but for different reasons!

My point is that workers have been worried about losing their jobs to machines since the middle of the 1700s, if not before. And yet here we are in 2017 with unemployment lower than 5%, despite the advances in technology, not least the invention of the internet.

I cannot cover all the issues I’m pondering in this short blog, but here are a few questions I am asking myself:

  • Will the accepted working week be just 20 hours in 20 years’ time?
  • What jobs can be created by AI and robotics around servicing, selling and design?
  • What new leisure industries could be created which would create new jobs?

If we think of computers providing ever more complex outputs, we realise that progress has filled needs we didn’t even know we had. Today’s entitlements were not even luxuries 50 years ago. We can reasonably expect the development of new technology to deliver similar wonders.

So to try to predict the future and make dire warnings is less than helpful. As investors, we need to embrace the opportunities these new technologies create and be mindful of the disruption to the status quo, i.e. businesses that become ex-growth at best or obsolete at worst.

The rate of technological change appears to be accelerating, which is great for civilisation, however it is a double-edged sword: our investment strategy will need to adapt just as swiftly to tomorrow’s realities.

PS. What a miracle: a blog with no mention of the Donald – oh …

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