'The future of work is in our hands', says new British Academy and Royal Society report on AI

11 Sep 2018

The British Academy and Royal Society have today published an evidence review on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of work. The review finds that eye-catching figures about job losses may give a misleading impression that AI spells the end of work, while acknowledging that the transition to an automated workplace will not be painless for all.

The review is published today to coincide with a keynote lecture on the future of work on Tuesday evening by Nobel-prize winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz, an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy and Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

Seeking to establish what we really know about how AI will change the world of work, the British Academy and Royal Society reviewed the best available evidence from over 160 papers by economists, historians, sociologists, data scientists, law and management specialists.

Their review finds that technology is not the sole cause of change, with political, economic and cultural factors at play too – meaning that society is still in the driving seat when it comes to the future of work and AI. 

While many projections of how many jobs will be lost, gained, or changed by AI have been published over the last five years, a consensus has begun to emerge that 10-30% of jobs in the UK are automatable. A range of different studies have made predictions about the number of jobs that might be affected by AI, for example one estimates that nearly 2 in 3 jobs with automatable potential – affecting 700 million people – are in four countries alone: China, India, Japan and the USA. It also highlights that 60 million workers will be affected in the five largest EU economies – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. However, there has been little progress to make these projections more accurate.

The review echoed existing concerns that, in the short term at least, AI could contribute to a widening of inequality, if lower-income workers are disproportionately affected and benefits are not widely distributed.

However, the Academies argue, there is a lot we can do to shape the way that new AI technologies change the economy and the workforce, and to ensure the benefits are shared equally. They highlight five key areas for policy makers:

  • Ensuring that the workers of the future are equipped with the education and skills they will need to be ‘digital citizens’;
  • Addressing concerns over the changing nature of working life, for example, income security and the gig economy, and tackling potential biases from algorithmic systems at work;
  • Meeting the likely demand for re-training of displaced workers through new approaches to training and development; and
  • Introducing measures to share the benefits of AI across communities, including by supporting local economic growth.

In the face of significant uncertainty about the future of work, adopting a broader post-16 curriculum including the sciences, maths, arts, and humanities could equip young people with the wider range of skills they will need to adapt to an AI-enabled future.

Professor Alan Wilson FBA FRS, a steering group member for this report said:

“Advances in AI will have a disruptive effect on work, with some jobs being lost, others being created, and others changing altogether. We want to bring evidence back into the debate and stimulate ideas on how we can ensure we all benefit from an AI-enabled future.

“History has shown us the potential for AI to widen inequality, at least in the short term, if some workers are disproportionately affected and the benefits are not widely distributed.

“However, there is much we can do now to ensure the advantages of AI are shared equally among the population, and that technology is used to boost productivity and growth. Adopting a broad post-16 curriculum which incorporates maths, science, humanities and social sciences, would go a long way in building resilience to future change.”

“We are not powerless to address the magnitude of the change ahead. The future of work is in our hands.”

Notes to editors

  1. The impact of artificial intelligence on work: an evidence synthesis on implications for individuals, communities, and societies is based on a review of recent literature commissioned for the British Academy and Royal Society by Frontier Economics, as well as two seminars attended by leading authors, scholars and AI practitioners
  2. The Frontier Economics literature review collected over 160 relevant English-language documents published since 2000, across a wide range of disciplines. These included: articles published in peer-reviewed journals, academic manuscripts, as well as reports published by public sector organisations, international organisations, think-tanks, and consultancies.

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