November 12, 2015      

In the wake of a University of Oxford paper predicting that automation will displace numerous jobs, many observers in the U.K. went into panic mode. But, as two subsequent studies show, the picture may well be a little more nuanced.

The much-cited 2013 study warned that up to half of all jobs could be at risk. The British news media has repeatedly cited the study saying that automation will displace numerous jobs.

However, there have been only a few counterarguments or proposals for how industry, government, and workers can respond to the challenges, including retraining or focusing robotics research and development on certain tasks.

Since that initial study, the University of Oxford has collaborated with Top 4 accountancy firm Deloitte LLP on a project to see what effects technology, robotics, and computers had on the workplace between 2001 and 2015.

By modelling 369 British occupations in detail, the study found that while 800,000 jobs have been automated, a further 3.5 million jobs have been created in their place as a direct or indirect result of technology.

Job disruption not certain

According to co-author Angus Knowles-Cutler, vice chair and London senior partner at Deloitte, the future trend is less certain, with a third of British jobs “at high risk of automation in the next 10 or 20 years, [amounting to] over 10 million roles.”

Even so, he said this is “unlikely to happen in full” because it is simply an estimate of what is technically possible and “doesn’t factor in the difficulty of implementing new machines in the workplace, nor when they will become cheaper than paying humans to do these jobs.”

Angus Knowles-Cutler says that up to a third of U.K. jobs could be at risk from automation.

Deloitte’s Angus Knowles-Cutler says that it’s”unlikely” that a full third of U.K. jobs will be replaced by automation.

“But the race is on to ensure we have a workforce able to work with computers and robots, rather than be replaced by them,” Knowles-Cutler added.

The notion that opportunities for successful adaptation are still very much on the table is echoed by Daniel Susskind, a lecturer in economics at Balliol College at the University of Oxford. In his recent book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Susskind (along with co-author Richard Susskind) predicts two possible futures, both of which rely upon technology and both of which he expects to develop in parallel over the short and medium terms.

The first he described as a “reassuringly familiar” but more efficient model of today’s situation, where professionals continue to work as they have done since the middle of the 19th century, but using technology to “streamline and optimise their traditional ways of working.” He cited the example of doctors using Skype to talk to patients.

The second future is a very different proposition, where Susskind argues that “increasingly capable systems” will displace much of the work of traditional professionals.

Adapting to change

In responding to the challenges posed by each of these scenarios, Knowles-Cutler claimed that it will be vital for students, workers, businesses, educators, and government to “fully understand and adapt to the changes that automation is bringing to the workplace,” which he predicted “might well be profound in the medium term.”

“Our clients tell us that the skills that they will increasingly value are digital know-how, advanced management, complex problem-solving, and entrepreneurship,” he said. “Are we all geared up for this?”

Meanwhile, Susskind said the key is to embrace and not reject these changes, especially from the standpoint of government and consumers. He argued that many career paths are already “creaking, [with] most people unable to afford the services of first-rate professionals, or indeed any professionals.”

“These increasingly capable systems and machines, operating alone or with non-expert users, offer us a way to provide more affordable access to the sort of expertise that was locked up in the heads of professionals or burrowed away in their filing cabinets,” he said.

“We are fortunate to live in a time of extraordinary technological progress,” Susskind said. “We should not see this as a challenge to be overcome, but an opportunity to seize.”

“We have the possibility to transform the way in which we make expertise available in society,” he noted. “We feel a great sense of excitement in imagining human beings across the world having more affordable access to a good education, to legal advice, to medical guidance, and so on.”