The Rise of the Machines: The Good, The Bad and the Grey Goo

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

Rise of the Machines

The IOSH Future Leader Conference is taking place on November 5th and includes a session titled ‘Robots: meet your new colleagues’, by health and safety consultant Bridget Leathley. This should be a really interesting examination of the benefits that robots and cobots (robot co-workers) can bring to occupational health and safety.

The Future Leaders Conference is aimed at those new to the profession (less than five years) as well as to professionals under the age of 35. In the last SHP UK survey of health and safety professionals, the demographic was 70% male, 60% aged over 45 and 90% of white ethnicity.

That survey was less specific on the educational backgrounds of health and safety professionals. Specifically, I wanted to know how what percentage had an educational background in psychology. Why? Because, with the rise of the machines (coupled with the changing working practices of the gig economy), managing the psychological well-being of workers is going to become an imperative.

This is not to say that the advance of technology is a bad thing, or even to be slowed. The benefits of automation and the occupational safety benefits from having, for example, drones performing otherwise “at height” activities are clear. But, what are the impacts on the human workforce as millions of blue-collar workers are replaced by ‘machines’? Also, it’s not just blue-collar workers, increasing numbers of white-collar jobs have been, and will increasingly be, lost to the ‘machines’.

A recent report from Oxford Economics estimates that a further 20 million manufacturing jobs will be lost globally by 2030, and that’s just manufacturing. The service sector is equally at risk from robotics, AI, machine learning and increased computing power with logistics and IT just two examples of industries already significantly impacted/improved by the ‘machines’.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that automation has significantly impacted the workforce. We’ve already seen the industrial revolution (among others) and the changes (for good) those made on society and the global workforce. What’s different today is the exponential nature of change brought on by technology and the shift of global economic models from scarcity to abundance. If you’d like a wild ride, Google “gray goo drexler”…

The gig economy is a great safety net for those displaced by technology. We can all take advantage of a second (or third) job in the service sector as, for example, a part-time taxi driver but even those jobs will likely go with the adoption of driverless cars. Does it matter that we’re being displaced if we can still make money and add to our quality of life? Is that even feasible? The recent epidemic of cabby suicides in New York might suggest otherwise.

So, yes, technology is great and the introduction of cobots, drones, AI, predictive analytics, etc. is fantastic as they will doubtless contribute to improved safety performance. However, the evidence suggests we will have to deal with ever-increasing wellness problems and, hence, our interest in the educational recruiting grounds for health and safety professionals.

There are major challenges to be faced as a health and safety industry and more broadly as a global society, particularly as these trends accelerate. Ray Kurweil predicts that “2045 is the date for the ‘Singularity’ which is when we will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created.”

That’s only 26 years away.

Will Government prove capable of managing the transition? Our Government? Any Government? Have you seen any discourse around this topic? Well, there is one entrepreneur/politician in the current Democratic nomination race for the 2020 US Presidency who is putting forward policies that deal with the social fall-out from this changing world and that’s Andrew Yang.

I’ll leave it to the reader to explore those policies as you wish, but it is good to know that there are those seeking public office with awareness of these major shifts and with the vision to propose potential solutions.

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