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Focus on ‘humanlike’ skills to mitigate impact of automation

A panel at the CBI annual conference was positive that automation doesn't have to make humans obsolete

The rise of automation means the education system needs to focus on providing young people with uniquely human skills, as well as digital ones, according to UK chief executive of Deloitte David Sproul.

Sproul was speaking at the CBI’s annual conference on a panel about the future of robotics and the workplace.

He said that although many routine and low-skilled jobs have been automated, more highly-skilled jobs have been created in their place. “Our best prospect of meeting the challenges [of driving productivity and ensuring automation doesn't lead to increased inequality] is to focus on the skills we need, creating open access to jobs, and valuing the diversity of our workforces.

Although Sproul said a focus on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills is “critical”, this shouldn't come at the expense of more “humanlike” skills.

“While it is necessary to focus on STEM, STEM by itself will not be enough to ensure the future prosperity of the UK,” he said. “[We need to] help the future workforce to work alongside machines in a smarter and more productive economy.” Sproul listed emotional intelligence, problem solving, negotiation, persuasion and social skills as examples of “humanlike” skills that a machine is not yet able to replicate.

He also encouraged businesses to work with schools and policymakers to “create the right balance of skills” for the future, citing research that suggests about 60% of jobs the next generation will do do not exist yet.

Also on the panel was Tom Athron, group development director at the John Lewis Partnership. He agreed there will always be certain roles a machine will be unable to replicate, or that customers will be unwilling to let a machine do. “There will always be demand for something that is more emotional than a computer can provide; humans will always value humans,” he said, adding that John Lewis’ business model depends on this.

Athron added that while John Lewis has embraced automation in its warehouses, for example, it has focused on enabling employees to deal more directly with customers. “When your business is in a high-service world technology can free people up to do things customers find very important,” he said. “Humans and machines will always be better than humans or machines alone.”

Ian Funnell, managing director, UK of technology firm ABB, said that in his view the rise of automation is unlikely to lead to mass unemployment. “There’s an urban myth that says ‘every time you put a robot in someone loses a job’; that doesn't have to happen,” he said. “It’s a cultural issue we have as a country to assume we will have unemployment as a result of automation.”