Into the wind…

It was recently announced that full tests of driverless cars will take place on UK roads (including motorways) within the next two years. The UK is lagging in this area behind some other countries, especially the USA, where the likes of Google have been taking automated cars out on public highways for several years. However, it's another landmark for technology which looks set to utterly transform human transportation over the next couple of decades.

At the same time, as I walk along my local High Street the windows of employment agencies are plastered with signs calling for drivers - of vans, minibuses, HGVs; indeed, one agency has only these jobs on display. 

Obviously, any transition to automated vehicles (especially the large ones on which the logistics industry relies) will take time (how much time has yet to be seen, and many issues remain to be decided before the shift can fully take place); however, it seems both interesting and unsettling that anyone approaching an employment office wondering which roles might be most in demand would come away with his or her thoughts pointed towards an industry on the verge of radical transformation involving the eventual removal of exactly those roles currently being yelled for.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog entitled ‘Automation and the Human Touch’, looking at some of the challenges the automation revolution is set to throw our way regarding future employment opportunities and the education and training of our next generation(s). That blog provoked some very interesting thoughts from readers:

"[This is] a subject causing much contemplation and I agree with your observation that we are 'sleepwalking'. Your humorous comment about it being easier to teach accountancy (which is a good one) is really an admission that its easier for us to abdicate our responsibilities to teach and enable people to prioritise their humanity. If that’s true then empathy and compassion will just become less important. It’s like the banana skin joke – it stops being funny when it starts being you." - Simon Boardman

"[This is] a very important aspect which I have been curious about for a fair bit: the role of parenting in making future generations more equipped to deal with challenges of automation and robotics. The irony is, parents may or may not have the awareness that they need to start prepping their wards for the new age - it's quite busy and tiring as it is anyway." - Sairam Natarajan

It also resulted in a fascinating chat with a former colleague, who pointed out that we are marching boldly forward into this automated future, with all the societal issues it looks like entailing, at the same time as many of the world's largest and most influential economies are lurching to the right, politically speaking.

As my erstwhile colleague - certainly no card-carrying commie herself - opined, the prevailing ideologies today are focused primarily upon individualism and small government (as well, in the case of the far right, factionalism along national lines) and rejecting in the main the proposition of the welfare state. However, the challenges posed by widespread automation to the employment market (indeed, the very nature of employment itself) seem to be those which require collaborative solutions and, quite possibly, a strong social/welfare safety net (for example, the proposed Universal Basic Income model).

At the core of the individualist perspective is the ethos that by hard work any individual should be able not merely to survive but to improve his/her situation and, indeed, to "succeed in life", however that's interpreted. Automation poses perhaps the most profound challenge to that perspective since its coming of age in the Enlightenment: how can an individual survive and thrive through hard work if the opportunities to work are removed? If the market is left to its own devices as (neo)liberals demand, why would employers engage a typical individual when a machine can carry out the required work more cheaply, more effectively and less problematically? And how can small, hands-off government ensure that the millions of individuals facing this problem are still able to survive, let alone thrive, in the absence of enough employment opportunities to go round?

It's not time for (more) dystopian fantasizing - but it does seem somewhat problematic that the political and technological winds of change should be blowing in such markedly opposing directions - and more so that at a time when increased collaboration and cooperation are so evidently in order (not merely to address these issues, but perhaps to tackle even greater problems such as climate change and resource depletion). Our remarkably, at times embarrassingly, partisan politics and discourse demonstrate instead a pronounced shift away from collective problem-solving. Perhaps this is merely one temporary phase in a cycle, but if so it appears to be coming at the wrong time.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of driving jobs available, in my area at least, so maybe the winds of change aren't yet gusting too hard for us to develop appropriate responses, from whichever end of the political spectrum...

Jamie Liddell, Editor, Outsource

Jamie Liddell is the Editor-in-Chief of Outsource. He is a journalist with extensive B2B and consumer experience, particularly in the sourcing and international property sectors. A graduate of Cambridge University, Jamie worked as Chief Foreign Correspondent for property media company Blendon Communications before moving into full-time B2B journalism as launch editor of the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network. He took over the helm of the Outsource brand in April 2010 and has since overseen its transformation and evolution into the world's leading publication focusing on the sourcing, outsourcing and business transformation space.