Sutton Trust releases report showing robotics and AI will worsen social mobility
What it said and why it’s wrong
by Luke Chambers
One of the most repeated terms in relation to robotics is ‘Robotics will lead to significant job losses’ and ‘robots are replacing our workers’. So much so that it now competes with other urban myths like ‘people swallow 7 spiders a year in their sleep’.
The thing is, there’s no historical evidence to show that’s the case. It’s true that robots are replacing humans in some jobs, but they’re also creating new jobs that didn’t exist before. The same worry was parroted when computers became commonplace. It’s true, computers have replaced most bank tellers, production line operatives, payroll administrators, shop employees and librarians. However, where corporate payroll administrators have gone largely extinct we now have corporate IT departments, where shop employees are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur we now have delivery drivers for services like Amazon, where bank tellers have been replaced by ATMs and online services we now have software/app developers and online helpdesk agents.
Technology changes society, and it should. Advancement both technological and social are just part of human life. It’s been doing that for thousands of years. Those who talk about the ‘good old days’ forget that those ‘good old days’ displaced and replaced the ‘even gooder, even older days’ that came before that. In 1870, 70% to 80% of the ‘developed’ world’s population was employed in the agriculture sector. Today it is 1%.
This is why when I saw a report by UK social mobility charity Sutton Trust being widely shared with the claims that robotics and AI (today’s common bogeymen) will limit social mobility – I was pretty sceptical. Newspapers around the world ran with headlines such as ‘Rise of robots will break the social ladder and could cost 15 million jobs’ (Sky News) and ‘Poorer workers hardest hit by strong arm of robotics’ (Financial Times).
The main reason I was sceptical is that I grew up in some of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom. For much of my childhood and early adulthood, I was as poor as it was possible to be without being homeless. Even now as a young adult currently studying a degree at university I live in an area renowned for its poverty where murder, violent crime and theft are news to no-one.
But here’s the thing – the degree I am studying is Artificial Intelligence. Soon I hope to specialise in robotics, and my current grades indicate I will be eligible for access to that specialty with no problem at all. What’s more, most people on that course with me come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Very few have much disposable income. We compare stories of our childhood when we would make toys out of branches. And of our mothers who were working 16 hour days to keep a roof over our heads.
So when this report hit that claimed poorer people lack the ‘soft skills’ such as confidence and communication to move into the robotics and AI sector, my immediate reaction was to scoff. Further reading did not instil me with a whole lot of confidence either.
The idea behind the report is that poor people, being the knuckle-dragging, grunting cavemen that they are, do not have the natural leadership or innovative prowess of those who are wealthier and better educated. The report glammed this up a bit, but that was the vibe I got from it. The truth is that people from poorer backgrounds have assets that those from wealthier backgrounds do not have. Those from disadvantaged economic foundations have great skill in making ‘something out of nothing’ and are able to innovate extremely quickly. This is because both of those skills have been used their entire lives just to get by, and are priceless to any employer.
One of the major sweeping claims that were made in the report was that paraprofessional jobs such as paralegals or administrators which were stepping stones into professional jobs were being eradicated and therefore it was difficult for those without a firm education in that area to progress. This in itself is laughable. A single visit to codecademy.com will allow you to see the company’s slogan ‘Learn to code interactively, for free.’ which is entirely accurate. You can go from knowing no code at all to designing your own software at no cost and in your spare time. Codecademy is only the most well-known one. There are sites and apps galore that allow you to learn to code at your own pace and in your own style. The internet is flush with ‘stepping-stone’ courses.
My own experience of those from the lower income bracket representing more than a fair share in the realm of technology is not just an anecdote. The number of students studying STEM subjects in the United Kingdom are at an all-time high, and this is mirrored in almost every other country with records on such matters. Coming on the tail end of a massive economic downturn, many of these students are from low-income families.
The main point is that social mobility for most people in the technological age relies not on education or finances but on sheer drive. There are ample tools out there to adjust to the shift in job roles, and everyone from a store clerk to a teacher to a doctor could, if they wanted, retrain easily to be able to work in the field of robotics, AI or other similar areas. Even many homeless people in the modern age have a certain degree of technical and digital competency – with 2nd hand smartphones being commonplace amongst rough sleepers.
The Sutton Trust’s claims are based on a gross misrepresentation of the abilities of those from a low income bracket. They are also powered by a general fear and misunderstanding of robotics and AI, as well as automation’s role in the change of employment sectors. It is true that in a decade’s time up to 50% of today’s jobs won’t exist, but they will be replaced by others. Even if these jobs do require some specialist knowledge – such as coding or engineering – there are ample free or inexpensive resources available for those who wish to retrain. It is true, and I concede the point, that more government involvement in promoting the ability to retrain for these new sectors would be helpful for those on a low income – but to say that being on low income is in itself a barrier to forging a career in AI or robotics is an exercise in hyperbole and serves only to vastly underestimate the power of basic human ambition.
In short, artificial intelligence and robotics is no more a barrier to social mobility than computers, phones or the internet. It is the latest in a long line of bogeymen, and vilifying them with shaky reports and hyperbolic conjecture is of use to very few people except those who seek to profit from that fear.