James Davies of Lewis Silkin LLP comments on the impact of Artificial Intelligence, robotics and technology on work in response to a new report from the International Bar Association.

Barely a week goes by without a new prediction of the impending impact of technology on today’s jobs.

The most recent contribution to this debate comes from the International Bar Association.  In a report published at the beginning of April on “Artificial Intelligence and robotics and their impact on the workplace”, the IBA’s Global Employment Institute sets out a particularly thorough, well-researched and well-reasoned account of the future challenges of this “fourth industrial revolution”.

Lead author, renowned German employment lawyer Gerlind Wisskirchen, and her co-authors set out various areas in which these changes will impact on the workplace. As the authors remind us, experts might disagree about how long we will wait for these changes, but they all agree on their inevitability.

The report highlights the challenges for employers and lawmakers in adapting to the increased flexibility of working arrangements these technological developments herald, whether in working hours; places of work; or remuneration systems. They also highlight the new forms of employment which are springing up resulting in the erosion of the dividing line between employment and self-employment, a topical issue in the UK with the growth of the “gig economy”.

A further area to which the report devotes attention, which will pose increasing issues for legislators and businesses, is the growing importance of “big data” and its increased role in the workplace.  We comment on this in another article for the Hub here.

With millions of jobs under threat from AI and robotics, the report discusses the possible implications for jobs. At one level, there is the argument that history has seen this before and jobs have always evolved to meet the changing circumstances. With the first industrial revolution, agricultural jobs vanished but manufacturing jobs replaced them. When manufacturing declined in “richer” countries in the second half of the 20th century, service industry jobs replaced them.

I am old enough to remember predictions of increased leisure time for all with the technological advances of the 1980s. In practice, for many, technology has instead resulted in being “on call” 24/7; never leaving work behind; and experiencing increased stress.

It is easy to predict the jobs that will be in greater demand and the jobs under greatest threat - the authors devote a section in the report to the impact of new technology on the labour market. They highlight new jobs such as data scientist which will be created and jobs which will continue to be in demand such as teachers and IT professionals. They also identify jobs which will be eliminated which are routine-heavy or require simple physical work.

Another predictable change is likely to be the return of “work” (even if undertaken by robots and not humans) from locations with low labour costs to those with strong education systems as the economies of cheap labour become less relevant where robots and not people are at work. The report identifies countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan as likely beneficiaries of this shift.

Whether or not sufficient new jobs will be created to replace the redundant ones, there is, nonetheless, a big task for employers and for educators to prepare people for significant changes ahead. The report’s employment lawyer authors conclude with a plea to help reduce the challenges of these changes, which I would echo: “It would be desirable for the future laws, which will hopefully be secured at the international level by uniform standards, to be geared to the technological developments and the increased need for flexibility.

One reason to be pessimistic that this international approach will prevail is the inevitable impact of politics on the issues covered in the report. We have seen voters fall back on protectionist politicians such as Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France (and, arguably, Brexit in the UK). We will have to wait and see whether or not this is a short-lived phenomenon.

A different response can be seen in the radical policies of French Socialist Presidential candidate Benoit Hamon who advocates a tax on robots and the introduction of a universal income to offset the predicted shortfall in work. It remains to be seen whether or not ideas such as these become more mainstream.

For an employment lawyer such as myself, however, it seems there will be work for some time. A study by Frey and Osborne, “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation” predicts that there is a 3% chance of a solicitor being replaced by a robot or computer compared to a 95% chance of an accountant being replaced... 

By James Davies, Lewis Silkin LLP