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The WEF: Getting anxious about automation

The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is one of the central themes of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), taking place in Davos this week. But the effect of transformative technological breakthroughs is still shrouded in a lack of consensus.  
 
According to a study released by WEF this week, increased automation and AI in the workforce will lead to the loss of 7.1m jobs over the next five years in 15 leading economies, including the UK, while helping create just 2m new jobs over the same period.
 
Millions of human workers will need to retrain, as robots make their existing jobs redundant, say leading economists, with women more at risk of losing out financially than men.
 
Another new report, from Swiss financial services provider, UBS, released in Davos, predicts that extreme levels of automation and connectivity will worsen already deepening inequalities by widening the wealth gap between developed and developing economies.
 
But others argue that automation will actually reduce inequality.
 
One thing is certain, the future is hurtling towards us fast; the WEF report predicts: 
 
…widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets over the next five years, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.
 
And ten years on, we can expect even more changes, according to the 800 tech executives and experts, surveyed by the WEF about possible tipping points. 
 
Unsurprisingly, the WEF is alarmed and advocates action:  
 
Without targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with future proof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base.
 
Public perception of the new technologies is key. Sebastian Thrun, the inventor of Google’s self-driving cars and an honorary professor at Delft University of Technology, told the Financial Times that “almost every established industry is not moving fast enough” to adapt their businesses to this change.
 
Self-driving cars, he believes, will make millions of taxi drivers redundant, and that, the WEF report suggests, is likely to happen within the next decade.
 
In 2007, Labour Force Survey statistics found that the most common occupations for UK-born men were managerial, driving and warehouse work. And for UK born women the top three are sales staff, office clerks, care assistants.
 
 
For immigrants to the UK the top three employment areas for men were chefs, warehouse workers and taxi drivers, and, for immigrant females, nurses, care assistants and cleaners.
 
These statistics are not up to date and predictions about the rate of technological development is by no means a reliable yardstick, but I don’t envy drivers and warehouse workers their roles. They are likely to be first in line demanding a rethink in public policy - job retraining, a basic income and expanding arts and culture for leisure time. 
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