Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation could herald a utopia for humankind, or a dystopia of mass unemployment and social unrest. Writer at Large, Neil Mackay, investigates the shape of things to come

IT was Amy who made Darrell M West realise that we are already living in the future.

West, one of the big brains at the acclaimed Brookings Institute think-tank in Washington, is the world’s leading authority on the future of work - on how our jobs and society will change beyond all recognition because of artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics.

One day West’s personal assistant was trying to set up a business meeting for him. She emailed and Amy, the personal assistant of West’s contact, got right back to her. West’s PA had left for the weekend, however, but Amy persisted, trying to get a reply and set up the meeting as soon as possible.

Amy, it turned out, was an AI - an intelligent piece of software. ‘Amy performed the tasks of a human assistant who read emails, discerned intent, and came up with a relevant response,’ West says. ‘There was nothing in the exchange that would lead anyone to conclude the correspondence was virtual.’

Not only could Amy fool West - the man who wrote the book The Future of Work - but she’d also managed to put someone out of a job. Before Amy, the role of that PA would have been filled by someone now rendered redundant by computer code.

You’ll have had similar experiences. Think of your average day: you buy a train ticket to work - from a machine, as ticket-sellers are increasingly automated; you grab breakfast at a fast food store using an order screen, as waiting staff are being automated; you buy your lunch at the supermarket, using scan and go, as till staff are being automated.

It’s little wonder that the world’s brightest minds are now fixated with robotics, AI and automation - the Big Three disruptors. The Labour Party has just commissioned the economist Robert Skidelsky to advise on the challenges of automation. The National Theatre of Scotland will stage a trilogy of plays exploring the impact of AI on the world.

Although low-skilled, low-paid jobs are most at risk, the Big Three threaten almost every career. Truck drivers, taxi drivers, carers, nurses, stockbrokers, even composers and writers are all at risk. And the ramifications are huge. West warns there will be ‘limited full-time employment opportunities other than for workers such as coders, computer experts, designers and data scientists’.

‘If companies need fewer workers as a result of automation and robotics,’ says West, ‘but most societal benefits are delivered through full-time jobs, how are people outside the workforce … going to get income … and retirement benefits.’

If we wish to avoid widespread social disruption, even unrest, then we need to ‘rethink work’ says West - perhaps caring and parenting should be paid employment. Such a change would require a quantum shift in how our political system looks at issues such as taxation - perhaps, the super-rich should be subjected to 1% tax on all their wealth; perhaps, everyone, whether working or not, should be paid a universal income.


We are at the dawn of The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first three revolutions came from steam, electricity and computing - our revolution comes in the shape of AI, robotics and automation.

It’s easy to see what fuels the revolution. Those digital ordering screens in fast food restaurants have raised growth projections for McDonald’s by one per cent. That’s a lot of money - and it comes from reduced labour costs. Amazon’s use of robots in its warehouses is likely to cut staff by a fifth. Driverless trucks, taxis and delivery vans will put millions out of work across the western world - decimating blue collar jobs, but increasing profits.

Robots are now ubiquitous. The Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has developed a robot which carries out search and rescue missions; China has ‘nanny robots’ for chicken farms, monitoring the health of birds; the Henn-na Hotel in Japan is basically run by robots. Emergency staff, vets and receptionists are all being replaced. Another Chinese company which makes iPhones, says West, ‘already has eliminated 60,000 human jobs through robots’.

No-one is safe. There’s a jazz robot that can improvise with human players. In old people’s homes in Sweden and Italy robots have reduced the number of health-care staff.

AI is just as disruptive as robotics. West explains that on the stock market ‘high frequency trading by machines has replaced much of human decision making’. AI is better and quicker at spotting trends, making investors richer faster.

A law firm in Chicago uses an AI, called Ross, as a legal assistant in bankruptcy cases. It gets smarter with each case. China is investing heavily in AI and the McKinsey Global Institute estimates AI will add up to 1.4 percent to GDP.

Economies may boom because of new technology but people will suffer. Antony Jenkins, a former chief executive of Barclays, says that as a result of automation the number of people employed in financial services ‘may decline by as much as 50 percent’.

Rishi Ganti, of Orthogon Partners Investment Management, which uses automated trading, says: ‘Algorithms are coming for your job - they only ask for electricity.'

Travel agents might become a thing of the past. West says: ‘There are virtual travel assistant services that employ AI to help with logistical issues. These bots can book trips, find needed services in distant cities and deal with travel delays.’

The Internet of Things will also disrupt employment. Devices linked to the internet - like Fitbit, and Amazon Echo - aren’t just cool, they herald something much more disruptive, an era when data does away with the need for human workers.

‘Some medical devices record vital signs and electronically transmit them to physicians,’ says West. ‘For example, heart patients have monitors that compile blood pressure, blood oxygen levels and heart rate. Readings are sent to a physician who adjusts medications.’

Of course, the benefits are huge - better health, less waiting time - but hospital support staff will also lose their jobs, and as West warns, ‘large data flows endanger personal privacy’.

Thinkers around the world believe we are at a fork in the road thanks to technology. Down one path, wealth becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, millions lose their jobs, and social unrest rises; down the other path, technology gives us more leisure time, jobs become less stressful, and wealth rises for all. Dystopia is easy - we just let it happen; utopia is hard - we need a paradigm shift in the way we view work, welfare and the role of government.

Economist Andrew McAfee says: ‘We are facing a time when machines will replace people for most of the jobs in the current economy, and I believe it will not come in the crazy distant future.’

Studies at Oxford and Yale universities found that ‘researchers predict AI will outperform writing high school essays (by 2026), driving a truck (by 2027), working in retail (by 2031), writing a bestselling book (by 2049), and working as a surgeon (by 2053) … there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years’.

A Royal Society study found that ‘a consensus has begun to emerge that 10-30% of jobs in the UK are highly automatable, meaning AI could result in significant job losses.’

Business will not help. West says: ‘When asked about their own hiring plans over the next five years in the context of robotics, 58 per cent of CEOs queried said they planned to reduce jobs.’

When there are fewer jobs, says West, some people ‘turn to crime, terrorism or other forms of social and political discontent. Having a dismal economic future does not encourage social integration or societal peace’.


We are already seeing changes in our jobs market - the rise of the gig economy, with more people self-employed, or working piecemeal for firms like Uber, or on zero hours contracts. This precarious employment means millions have no contributions from employers for pensions. In the EU, more than half of all new jobs created since 2010 have been temporary contracts.

Here’s where the big ideas are developing. ‘It makes sense to broaden the definition of work,’ says West. Volunteering, mentoring and most importantly caring and parenting ‘contribute to society but currently provide little income’. In other words, pay stay-at-home parents and carers.

The idea of a universal basic income is also gathering momentum. Economist Robert Skidelsky says: ‘As robots increasingly replace human labour, humans will need incomes to replace wages from work.’

How do we pay for all this? Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, suggests a ‘robot tax’, saying: ‘If a human worker does $50,000 of work in a factory, that income is taxed. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.’

Taxing high consumption goods is also a Gates’ idea. If a billionaire buys a yacht, they get hit with a supertax. Another idea is the ‘solidarity tax’. West describes it as ‘a tax on the net property, stock, pension and financial assets owned by high-net-worth individuals’.

‘One approach that will not work,’ says West, ‘is cutting the tax rates paid by the wealthy as a way to stimulate overall economic growth.’

The changing shape of work, will also change education. No longer will studies be crammed into our first 20 years, instead, we’ll need to learn throughout our lives. The Royal Society says that in 2013, 6% of all the jobs in the UK did not exist in 1990. As old jobs die and new ones are created, people will need to retrain to stay in the employment market. West calls this ‘an era of permanent dislocation’.

The truck driver displaced by autonomous vehicles could retrain to monitor those vehicles - their retraining paid for by new tax regimes. A ‘universal displaced worker programme’ has been suggested to help redundant staff gain new skills.

But is there the political will for such seismic changes? ‘It is difficult,’ says West, ‘in a polarised environment to get national leaders or the general public to think about digital disruption and the future of work.’ And that, he says, ‘is a recipe for widespread unrest’.

But there is historic precedent for far-sighted leaders shaping society for the better in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Clement Attlee created the modern welfare state after the Second World War; Franklin Roosevelt established the New Deal in response to the Great Depression.

In the era of Twitter, though, such big ideas seem few and far between, and politicians may prefer to do nothing, for their own benefit. One study of the 2016 presidential election found that in areas where more than one robot was introduced for every thousand workers voters backed Trump over Clinton.

‘To make progress,’ says West, ‘a new kind of politics is needed.’ He suggests one way to change the game completely is the introduction of compulsory voting. With low turn-outs, politics has become dysfunctional, extreme, less thoughtful, and compromise averse. Increasing turn-out, West suggests, would boost the middle ground of voters and force a more thoughtful agenda on parties.

‘If we adjust our politics,’ says West, ‘we can deal with the coming stresses. All it takes is policy and actions that encourage and make possible skills retraining, lifelong education and a creative reimagining of the world of work.’

‘If this transition is handled well’, he adds, ‘it could usher in a utopian period of widespread peace, prosperity and leisure time. However, poor decisions could produce dystopias that are chaotic, violent and authoritarian in nature.’


In the 19th century most people worked 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. In 1926, Henry Ford became one of the first employers to adopt the five day week. His profits and productivity rose.

The UK think tank Autonomy has crunched the numbers on introducing a four day week and says it makes sense all round. Productivity doesn’t fall, so wages don’t need to be decreased, and accidents and absenteeism drop.

‘Countries working fewer hours tend to have higher levels of GDP,’ the authors of Autonomy’s study ‘The Shorter Working Week’ found. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway work the fewest hours and are highly productive; Greece works the most hours and isn’t as productive. The UK works more hours than Germany, but is less productive.

Studies have shown staff are most productive in the first five hours of work. At 35 hours a week, workers began to show a decrease in productivity.

As automation hits, we’ll need more jobs. Reducing the number of hours people work, results in a larger pool of jobs. It also helps get more women into the workplace, as it still falls mostly on women to be flexible around childcare. A shorter working week would also help the environment, Autonomy says - as there would be less carbon emissions per person per day.


You know that ID badge you wear around your neck to swipe you in and out of the office - well it doesn’t just open doors for you, it opens up your life to scrutiny by your bosses too. It tells them when you arrived, and when you went home. If you work at a computer, your employer knows when you’re working, and when you’re not.

The STUC is currently investigating the role data is playing in the monitoring of staff. Data is being used to ‘set performance-related targets’, says Dave Moxham, STUC deputy general secretary. ‘Workplaces are increasingly under strict surveillance and monitoring.’

In hospitality, retail and construction, app-based agencies are allocating work piecemeal based on data about past performance and flexibility, says Moxham. In order to get jobs, workers are ‘forced to be pliable’.

Electronic log-in systems are ‘new processes for maintaining time discipline’, he says. Big data ‘erodes the control that people have over their own work’.

‘Scotland’s industrial development will be shaped by new data-driven technologies,’ says Moxham, ‘and the STUC is eager to shift the focus away from corporate opportunities, and towards the rewards that data-driven change can bring for producers and society. Data-driven change has huge economic potential, and unions are ambitious to transform these new sources of wealth into shorter working weeks, higher wages, and fulfilling work in every sector of Scotland’s economy.’

* Further reading - The Future of Work: Robots, AI and Automation by Darrell M West