Hysteria trap: Don’t be scared of public sector robots

By Kitty Knowles 6 February 2017

The screaming masses are wrong.

Panic is in the air.

The cyborgs are coming, and they’ve got their grubby tin hands on our private sector.

“Robots could replace 250,000 public sector workers,” shouted Sky News this morning.

More specifically, “Robots could do 250,000 NHS and Whitehall jobs,” cried The Times.

Whether you work in the public sector (and fear for your job), or use their services (and don’t want to been seen by a metal medic), this sounds terrifying.

But please don’t get caught up in this media frenzy.

The future is bright, you just need to come up for air.

No need for hysteria

We’ve noticed this kind of story being pumped out a lot lately, and as we move towards an automated future, they will only become more common.

But please take a moment to digest our three key points, the first being:

Change is good.

Digital tools will be brought into organisations like the NHS, and we should be afraid of this.

The point of technology is to make life easier, and in today’s strained economy we imagine doctors and nurses (as well as Whitehall staff) will welcome the idea of having some tasks alleviated.

(Just think how much bot-based productivity apps like Slack and Amy are already helping you in the office).

Some employees – including those in receptionist or clerical roles – will eventually find themselves in the firing line, but for the most part, digitisation will not be a case of cyborg suddenly taking over one individual’s job. And it certainly won’t happen overnight.

Instead, it will be about using software to speed up particular processes, like collecting information, administering non-intravenous medicine, and reading radiological scans.

Beymax is a robot healthcare assistant in Big Hero 6.
Beymax is a robot healthcare assistant in Big Hero 6.

If, for example, a robot like IBM Watson can search a patient’s records or analyse an x-ray more effectively than a human, this is better for the nation’s health and should be brought in.

Over time, these different systems will hopefully start to see a whole organisation run more efficiently, which may result in fewer staff.

But this will be an organic shift, that happens over a period time, and it will be for the greater good.

You wouldn’t expect to find labourers milling corn by hand today, when a machine is far more efficient.

The only difference today is, we’re not going to take any Luddites out the back and shoot them.

Know your sources

Secondly, always consider your sources.

When big, brazen figures like ‘250,000 job cuts’ are bandied around, we think it’s worth checking them.

The think tank behind today’s report, for example, is Reform, whose declared mission is to work towards “a leaner, smarter, public sector workforce.”

This isn’t to suggest that the organisation’s research isn’t a valuable indicator of what lies ahead. But you should consider that this is a think tank with a vested interest in automation; and on setting hard-and-fast aims and goals.

It’s also directly funded by ‘private individuals and by corporate organisations’, including the likes of Accenture and PA Consulting, consultants whose bread and butter is made by finding savings.

With this in mind, cutting 250,000 jobs sounds more likely a slightly unrealistic aim, rather than a set-in-stone fact.

Don’t fear the future

Finally, with the ‘digital revolution’ it’s important to take in the wide view: that shouldn’t be about scaremongering.

We should, as a society, start to address and accept that more jobs will be done by robots in the future, and that this isn’t a reason to fall into anarchy.

Innovation doesn’t just mean job losses, it also brings opportunity. And here at The Memo we see new companies spring up every day that have made it their business to embrace the digital world.

You don’t even need to be digital-savvy yourself, you just need to be able to see a genuine problem that needs fixing, and a great digital team to support your dream.

New generations are harnessing to power of social media to launch their comedy or styling careers, and children today are growing up with coding, 3D-printing and virtual reality as exciting new mediums to explore.

The only real danger we face, is a lack of awareness around these opportunities. The young and old alike need to be educated in how they can seize and benefit from this new digital economy.

The robots are coming, and we say bring it on. We shouldn’t be scared or ignorant of what’s ahead.

Instead let’s prepare for the brave new world, and make sure everyone can make the most of it.