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We’ve heard a lot about AI (Artificial Intelligence) in recent years and how it will change our lives. There are some who feel AI could lead to the destruction of the human race, like something out of Hollywood’s Terminator films. That, to my mind, is a little over the top, but AI, robots and automation will see a major change in work practices.

We only have to look back in history to see how the introduction of new technology can change and even destroy jobs that have been around for centuries.

I have spent almost my entire working life, from 1973 to now, 2018, working with computers. From main frames to PCs I’ve always worked with a computer with the exception of almost three years as a wine merchant on leaving school in 1971. Due to this new computer technology many new jobs were created and I became a computer programmer. But job creation with the introduction of computers also introduced job destruction.

In 1986 Britain’s largest privately owned newspaper publisher, News International, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was faced with a stark choice. His newspapers, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun, were losing money in the way they were produced in Fleet Street, London. To make these newspapers profitable Murdoch had to introduce new innovations in technology that would revolutionise the way newspapers would be produced.

The old method of typesetting a newspaper was costing the company a fortune in wages and the introduction of computers would make that process more streamlined. Journalist could input their copy into a computer for the first time and software would take over the role of the typesetter. But the introduction of this new technology would put 90% of the old-fashioned typesetters out of work. Despite offering redundancy payments of £2,000 to £30,000 to each printer to quit their old jobs the print unions rejected the offer. In January 1986 union members at Murdoch’s newspaper plants went on strike.

But News International had secretly built and equipped a new printing plant in Wapping, London. In its current printing site in and around Fleet Street, London, the main print unions ran what was called a closed shop. Only members of the unions could be hired at the printing plants, even to the extent that many workers were sons of union members where jobs had been handed down from father to son.

The new plant in Wapping did not have a closed shop contract. Only 670 printers were employed at the new plant to produce the same number of newspapers that took almost 7,000 people to print at the old plants. The efficiency of the new technology sent a shock-wave through the print unions. Not only did they strike, they picketed the new plant and what was to become known as the Battle of Wapping lasted a year.

Part of News International’s new strategy called for better and more efficient ways to distribute the newspapers. They employed TNT Newsfast, a new division of the express delivery and logistics operator TNT UK, who would drive the newspapers by road to their destination, as opposed to using the slower and more costly railway system previously used.
New technology and new work practices saw the loss of many jobs, but also the introduction of new jobs and many other newspaper publishers in the UK and around the world, followed News International’s lead. However, this new technology was also sowing the seeds of job destruction for the very same new jobs that had just been created.

If you pay attention to the science news you will know that many tech companies like Google and vehicle manufacturers are putting a lot of money into driverless car technology. Cars that park themselves are becoming more common and it will not be long before cars will be doing all our driving. In fact, it’s been said that ownership of cars will become a thing of the past. But what is obvious is that it won’t be long before cab-drivers and anyone who drives a vehicle for a living will soon be out of a job. In particular, companies like TNT who were mentioned earlier, will be investing in driverless vehicles.

When it happens, this onslaught on driving jobs will be like the destruction of jobs when the first cars and goods vehicles took over from the hansom cab, pony & trap and any horse drawn transport. Cities around the world had a whole infrastructure dedicated to looking after horses. These animals were the mainstay of commerce within all major industrialised countries, until the development of the internal combustion engine put paid to their supremacy. How many farriers lost their livelihoods when horses became obsolete will probably never be known. On the other hand, those new-fangled horseless carriages still needed drivers… for now.

Driverless vehicles will mean the loss of many, if not all, jobs involving driving. If I were to make a prediction, I would say Uber and Taxi drivers in general will be the first driving jobs to go.

And of course, the good old car, which has not been around too long, is more and more made by robots. AI will soon put paid to not only the use of humans in building cars, but also the design of cars. Car factories over the next 50-100 years will become human free zones.

This new reality is just around the corner for the human workforce the world over. Many jobs will be taken over by AI and robotic-automation. But unlike back in the day when I started my career as a computer programmer, there will be no new jobs created from this new technology. Humans will be cut out of the loop completely. From car workers to car drivers, pilots to train-drivers, doctors to nurses these jobs will become non-existent in a very short period of time.

What then do we, as human beings, do with all that spare time? But a more interesting and frightening question is how do we earn a living if there are no jobs for humans to do?

Copyright Tom Kane © 2018

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