Robo-Apocalypse cancelled? Reframing the automation and future of work debate
Robotics and the automation of knowledge work, often referred to as AI (artificial intelligence), are presented in the media as likely to have massive impacts, for better or worse, on jobs skills, organizations and society. The article deconstructs the dominant hype-and-fear narrative. Claims on net job loss emerge as exaggerated, but there will be considerable skills disruption and change in the major global economies over the next 12 years. The term AI has been hijacked, in order to suggest much more going on technologically than can be the case. The article reviews critically the research evidence so far, including the author’s own, pointing to eight major qualifiers to the dominant discourse of major net job loss from a seamless, overwhelming AI wave sweeping fast through the major economies. The article questions many assumptions: that automation creates few jobs short or long term; that whole jobs can be automated; that the technology is perfectible; that organizations can seamlessly and quickly deploy AI; that humans are machines that can be replicated; and that it is politically, socially and economically feasible to apply these technologies. A major omission in all studies is factoring in dramatic increases in the amount of work to be done. Adding in ageing populations, productivity gaps and skills shortages predicted across many G20 countries, the danger might be too little, rather than too much labour. The article concludes that, if there is going to be a Robo-Apocalypse, this will be from a collective failure to adjust to skills change over the next 12 years. But the debate needs to be widened to the impact of eight other technologies that AI insufficiently represents in the popular imagination and that, in combination, could cause a techno-apocalypse.