A talk by John Naughton recorded on 19 January 2016 at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, at the symposium Technological Displacement of White-Collar Employment: Political and Social Implications.
About the symposium
In recent years, the debate about automation and employment has taken a new turn. What has re-ignited the debate is the realisation that the process of ‘combinatorial innovation’ in digital technology—the combination of massive increases in processing power, big data analytics, sensor technology, digital mapping and machine learning—has opened up the possibility that large numbers of non-repetitive jobs which require some cognitive skills may become amenable to automation in the foreseeable future. This kind of work—classically defined as ‘white collar’ jobs in the UK (‘middle-class’ in the US)—represents a significant proportion of current industrial and commercial employment, and significant displacement of it by technology would be a major development for societies. Estimates of the potential disruption vary, but the best-known study (by Frey and Osborne) estimates that fully 47 per cent of the 702 job categories identified by the US Bureau of Labor could now be vulnerable.
At this stage, there is no way of determining whether the sceptics or the predictions are correct. This uncertainty, however, should not be the end of the discussion, but the beginning. The possibility that a significant proportion of middle-class work could be mechanised at the pace we have seen in other areas affected by digital technology is an eventuality that needs to be taken seriously, even if the probability of it happening is lower than evangelists believe. The existence of a stable middle class is a prerequisite for a viable democracy, and the prospect of it being destabilised is therefore of great interest to our Technology and Democracy project.
To discuss it we have brought together four speakers, each of whom brings a different perspective to the issue.
- Robert Madelin is Senior Adviser for Innovation in the European Commission
- Daniel Susskind is a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and co-author of The Future of the Professions (OUP)
- Willy Brown is Emeritus Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Cambridge and former Master of Darwin College
- Gerard de Vries is Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Amsterdam and a former member of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, the think tank of the Dutch government for long-term policy issues
This talk is part of the Technology and Democracy Events series.