As humans, we have been fascinated about using tools to make our lives easier and to get more done for our entire history. Our ancestors invented modern agriculture by using animals for work. Then they created mechanical machinery to create whole new industries.
They developed bicycles, then motorcycles, cars, trains, and planes to get around faster. Then they created computers and the internet to do the mental heavy lifting as well. Automation is not new, but the way we think about it is.
Automation is something that is talked about a lot at present. We’re told that automation can make our lives easier, take away mundane tasks that we don’t want to do, help us be more efficient, and find new ways for us to entertain ourselves.
Sometimes the claims can seem a little ridiculous, like they’ve been taken straight from a science fiction film. Yet some claims and ideas for automation are very much based on reality and are already implemented or could be very soon.
So how will automation affect London and the people that live and work in the city?
Of course one major change that automation will bring about is in jobs. Low skilled and repetitive jobs such as those in retail are likely to be at risk. This is a trend that is already happening as self-checkouts replace humans.
Although low-paid jobs are five times more likely to be replaced by a robot, higher-paid jobs will be affected too. Finance jobs (which London has a lot of) will be at risk because robots can do a better job at picking stocks. Automated tracker funds and ETFs, such as those that just replicate the FTSE 100, are growing in popularity. This could see a fall in the number of fund managers.
Talk about a universal basic income to protect people from the changes in the job market have been discussed by governments across the world, and have even been trialled in parts of Europe. This would see people paid a set amount of money by a government each month, regardless of whether they work or not. The idea behind it being that it will let people focus on other volunteering or starting a business. Such a scheme could also help to reduce the number of people using food banks, reversing recent trends which has seen their use increase by 22%.
There will also be new jobs created, people will need to build and maintain robots and other automation equipment. So people may need to retrain to adapt to the changing job market.
Computers make better risk judgments than humans. They can also communicate and make calculations faster. Since these are all crucial elements of driving, it’s likely automation will change transport significantly.
It won’t just be driving jobs that will be at risk, but automation will be able to speed up journey times and eradicate congestion. The majority of road congestion comes from vehicle volume and the concertina effect. This is when someone at the front of a string of cars brakes gently, which is magnified along the row of cars that results in some having to stop.
Automation will be able to stop all of these, allowing driverless cars to travel closer together and may remove the need for traffic lights. Cars could talk to each other as they approach an intersection, with some slowing down and others speeding up to go through without stopping. Trains too may be able to travel closer together through such a system.
In a crowded city like London, these will be useful in improving journey times and reducing the length of time we all have to spend commuting each day.
Less stopping and starting by cars will mean reduced CO2 emissions in our cities. However, automation can also help to improve our environment in cities in other ways.
Automation could be used to increase the amount of waste that gets recycled. A recycling centre in North Las Vegas already uses this technology to process 70 tons of material every hour.
Robots may also be able to operate 24/7 indoor food growing factories that could produce more food in less space and with less water. Growing food closer to food populations could also reduce the emissions associated with transport.
A Japanese company called Spread has already built a factory with the ability to produce 21,000 heads of lettuce every single day. It creates what it calls “vertical farms”, where plants can be grown on racks that are stacked up on top of each other and artificially lit in perfectly controlled environments.
Using these techniques in London would help feed Londoners with more environmentally friendly food while also helping to reduce the waste that they produce.
The effects of automation will only be known for certain when they are realised, however there are plenty of positives that can be taken from the prospects. The main negative, which is the risk to jobs, can also be mitigated by making sure social safety nets and training schemes are in place.