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Is technology ousting human employees?

The industrial disputes on Southern rail services and the London Underground this week are really about technology replacing human labour. Trains no longer need guards because train drivers can operate the doors and ‘Touch and Go’ makes ticket offices redundant. 

Science fiction long ago anticipated the day when machines will replace humans and now it seems to be happening. Last week the Japanese insurance company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance made 34 of its employees redundant because it will replace them with an artificial intelligence system (A1) that can calculate pay-outs on claims faster and more accurately than the employees. The company expects increased productivity of 30% and a saving of £1 million. How far should we expect to see machines taking over and how should we respond?

A study for the World Economic Forum last year suggested that artificial intelligence and other machines could replace five million people in the 15 leading economies by 2020. The key issue is which jobs can be replaced by machines? It is no longer only those that involve boringly repetitive tasks as in the 19th century industrial revolution. The Japanese ministry for trade and industry is introducing A1 to help civil servants draft answers for the ministers to use in Cabinet and Parliamentary sessions. Others see a potential application in a wide range of financial jobs and computers may even be able to undertake routine medical diagnosis. Machines can handle the routine tasks leaving responsibilities that involve unpredictability and problem solving to people.

These developments pose some serious questions for public policy. For example how well do our schools prepare young people for jobs involving non-routine problem solving?  How will we retrain those made redundant by machines? In so far as it’s true that a lot of female employment tends to be in office jobs; their replacement by clever machines raises issues of gender equality. How will the benefit system cope with those who are not bright enough or sufficiently motivated at school to hold down a job in this technologically sophisticated environment? Of course this environment will create new jobs in software, engineering, maintenance, support and training and further and higher education colleges will need to train more people to do these jobs.

This discussion also needs to note the moral and spiritual significance of work and anything that threatens employment for all who have the ability to work. From a Christian perspective we were all made in the image of our Creator and that includes engaging in meaningful work. The Creation story portrays God as a worker and Jesus affirmed that “my father is always at his work” (John 5:17) Jesus worked and his critics knew him as “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3). The first man Adam was given work to do (Genesis 2:15). The writer of Ecclesiastes saw that “there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work” (3:22) and the Apostle Paul wrote that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2Thessalonains 3:10).

 From these perspectives, work is an important part of our created life which can be used to serve and glorify God. It also gives us the means to provide for our own and our family’s needs and to contribute to society. That technology threatens to replace some of us in our current employment need not be something to fear if we, individually and as a society, are willing to adapt and retrain and employers and the Government help us to do that.

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