Are Robots Threatening Jobs or Are We Taking Them Ourselves Through Self-Service Automation?

Via several tweets today, a story in the Guardian declaring Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, says Bank of England’s chief economist:

The Bank of England has warned that up to 15m jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost to an age of robots where increasingly sophisticated machines do work that was previously the preserve of humans.

The original source appears to be a speech (“Labour’s Share”) given by Andrew G Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England to the Trades Union Congress, London, 12 November 2015 and has bits and pieces in common with recent reports such as this one on The Future of Employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation? or this one asking Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?, or this on The new hire: How a new generation of robots is transforming manufacturing, or this collection of soundbites collected by Pew, or this report from a robotics advocacy group on the Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment. (Lots of consultancies and industry lobby groups seem to have been on the robot report bandwagon lately…) There’s also been a recent report that seems to have generated some buzz lately from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch on Creative Disruption, which also picks up on several trends in robotics.

But I wonder – is it robots replacing jobs through automating out, or robots replacing jobs by transferring work from the provider of a service or good directly on to the consumer, turning customers into unpaid employees? That is, what proportion of these robots actually self-service technologies (SSTs)? So for example, have you ever:

  • used a self-service checkout in a supermarket rather than waiting in line for a cashier to scan your basketload of goods, let alone bought a bag of crisps or bottle of water from a (self-service) vending machine?
  • used a self-service banking express machine or kiosk to pay in a cheque, let alone used an ATM to take cash out?
  • used a self-service library kiosk to scan out a library book?
  • used a self-service check-in kiosk or self-service luggage drop off in an airport?
  • used a self-service ticket machine to buy a train ticket?
  • collected goods from a (self-service) Amazon locker?
  • commented in a “social learning” course to support a fellow learner?
  • etc etc

Who’s taken the jobwork there? If you scan it yourself, you’re an unpaid employee…

PS in a later speech (The Spectre of Monetarism, Dec 2016), Carney showed the following chart:


Encouraging, eh?! :-(

PS for more on this theme, see eg this December, 2017, IPPR report on Managing automation: Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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