Worrying about robots stealing our jobs? How silly | Simon Jenkins

The digital age will free us up not only for leisure activities but also to take on caring roles that can only be filled by humans

So we are doomed. Robots will steal our jobs. Algorithms will capture our children. Artificial intelligence will corrupt our free will. We are to be slaves to machines.

The Bank of England economist Andy Haldane warns today that “large swathes” of current labour will disappear as AI takes over. For a man who lives and breathes statistics, large swathes is a poor percentage. These jeremiads attended the invention of computers, combine harvesters, spinning jennies and probably iron-age axes. But no one gets on the Today programme for predicting that AI might be good news.

How is it then that elsewhere in the news, we hear of people frantic for staff? There are currently 90,000 vacancies in social care and 24,000 in nursing. A chronic labour shortage in British social services has risen from 7% six years ago to 11% today. Education is suffering likewise. Employers across the health, construction, agriculture, travel and hospitality sectors are screaming that Brexit heralds an employment disaster, as the EU migrant tap is turned off.

The idea that algorithms, robots and 3D computer printing will render these booming industries redundant is silly. Clearly new technology will mechanise a number of activities. As throughout history, innovation requires labour markets to shift and people – or their offspring – to retrain. The reality of economic history is that technology and trade yield short-term disruption. The same thing happened with refrigerated transport in the 1880s and combine harvesting between the wars. But we survived and prospered as new needs, and jobs, emerged. Haldane’s gloom merely serves the looming politics of protectionism and chauvinism.

The latest cliche, the “fourth industrial revolution”, supposedly describes a new algorithmic age. If there is to be a fourth revolution it will be the complete opposite, a reversion to the economy of human experience. The digital age will satisfy the mundanities of life, releasing leisure time for activities that are already soaring in demand. These cover everything from health, beauty, travel, food, the arts and entertainment to psychotherapy, social work, the care of children and the elderly. These service industries essentially involve human relationships. They cannot be done by robots or machines. They are labour-intensive and they are costly, whether in the private or public sector. They are also booming. Leisure and travel is second in value only to financial services.

Economists obsessed with manufacturing statistics would do better to welcome AI as releasing workers into the experience economy. They should discuss how we are going to pay for them, especially those concentrated in the public sector. They should stop grabbing easy headlines by encouraging those now suffering a Trump/Brexit retreat into chauvinist job protectionism.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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Simon Jenkins

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