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The Rise of the Machines: 250,000 Jobs Could be Lost to Robots

Chloe Henderson

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Almost 250,000 UK public sector workers could be replaced by robots in the next 15 years according to a controversial new report released by think tank Reform.

The group, which aims to improve public services and encourage economic prosperity, is recommending the automation of thousands of roles within Whitehall and the NHS, claiming that it would improve efficiency and save billions of pounds.

The report titled Work In Progress suggests that significant cuts can be made to the number of staff by replacing humans with online processes.

It proposes that artificially intelligent “chat bots” and websites could cut 130,000 Whitehall jobs by 2030, saving an estimated £2.6 billion a year.

The NHS could also replace almost 90,000 administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists, resulting in annual savings of more than £1.7 billion.

The think tank believes that replacing strategic roles with computers will result in a more efficient public sector that delivers better value for taxpayer money.

It is also calling for organisational change, criticising the sector’s “old-fashioned” hierarchical structure that prohibits mid-level managers from executing new ideas without instruction from above.

It states that a move towards automation will eventually result in a more “diamond-shaped” and linear system that will use technology to develop “a leaner and better performing workforce.”

The report is the latest addition to the ongoing conversation regarding the potential for robots in the British workplace.

The NHS announced in January that they had begun experimental trials for a “chat bot” app that uses artificial intelligence to answer users’ medical queries.

Some residents of North London can consult the app as an alternative to the non-emergency 111 number to determine the severity of their symptoms.

Significant evidence exists to substantiate Reform’s claim that increasingly automated work forces result in greater productivity and efficiency.

The Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan, China, announced in February that replacing 90% of it’s employees with robots resulted in a 250% production increase.

A Japanese insurance company told the BBC that automating the roles of 30 employees is expected to see efficiency surge by 30%, and result in annual savings of nearly £1 million.

Despite the statistics, responses to the report released by Reform have been divided, with concerns raised regarding the 250,000 public sector workers who may find themselves in the firing line.

To many, the promise of greater efficiency by means of technological advancement does not justify the redundancies of a huge section of the human work force.

Some commentators, such as Rebecca Hill of Public Technology, also questioned the validity of several claims made in the report.

Her primary concern was with the think tank’s use of HRMC’s reduction of administrative staff as a positive case study for their proposal.

She pointed out that HRMC had come under fire for cutting staff numbers before new technology had been properly embedded, resulting in a collapse of customer service and the subsequent need to hire back more staff.

Writing for The Register, Kat Hall also called some of Reform’s statistics into question, accusing it of giving a superficial interpretation of a number of AI research claims.

She also alleged that the report’s claims that IBM’s Watson is better at diagnosing lung cancer than human doctors were cited only by an interview from a US private healthcare company included in a Wired article from 2013.

Not everyone is as sceptical, however. To some, the proposal offers a welcome plan to bring reform to a sector often criticised for its inefficiency and its reluctance to make use of technological developments.

In an article written for The Memo, Kitty Knowles urged readers to ignore any “media frenzy” and to remind themselves that “change is good.”

She suggested that the increasing digitalisation of services is an inevitable process that will reap a number of benefits for consumers and staff alike.

“The point of technology is to make life easier, and in today’s strained economy we imagine doctors and and nurses (as well as Whitehall staff) will welcome the idea of having some tasks alleviated… innovation doesn’t just mean job losses, it also brings opportunity.”

The report’s co-author Alexander Hitchcock has acknowledged concerns for job losses, but believes that they are outweighed by the benefits an increasingly automated workforce would reap.

He said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handed sensitively. But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”

Chloe Henderson

Staff Writer - DIGIT

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