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We asked a tech expert if AI is going to be the end of us all

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Relax, smart robots won’t take your job – at least not in our lifetime – but you may need to retrain. Get a grasp of IT skills now to stay ahead of the pack, says the leading technology journalist and author, Ryan Weeks.

Here, Ryan discusses the possible impact of disruptive technology on students...

Tell us about Pimple, your new book, and who it will appeal to.

Pimple is the satirical story of a new app – an Uber for the sex trade – and how its rise to prominence changes the lives London’s pimps and prostitutes. It will appeal to those students studying technology or finance but also to a wide range of people who use apps on a daily basis.

What do you mean by the term, ‘digital disruption?

Digital disruption is a term used to describe a situation in which a technology-optimised business (like Uber or AirBnb) begins making inroads into a long-entrenched industry (like taxi driving or accommodation).

Is digital disruption a good or bad thing for society?

It’s both – and that’s not a cop-out! The benefits for consumers are clear. Tech disruptors generally offer better, faster and fairer (and sometimes cheaper) services by leveraging their superior technology. But at the same time they begin to shift customer expectations, and that will often result in job losses. For example, in banking we are seeing thousands of bank branches close each year. Meanwhile the mobile-only banks (Monzo, Starling, etc.) have no branches at all.

There are media reports that most UK workers could be replaced by robots and/or automation within the next few decades. Do you agree?

I don’t think so. I think there’s a number of important factors to remember. The workforce is adaptable, and while future of work may look very different, with the right approach from policy-makers and companies, the workforce can retrain in order to remain relevant. A recent report by PwC, for example, suggested that more jobs would in fact be created than would be destroyed by Artificial Intelligence in the next few decades.

What is the likely impact of digital disruption on students specifically; is there any point studying for a degree in engineering, for instance, if the sector will be fully automated in the near future? And should students consider studying only specific jobs that are impervious to digital disruption and, if so, what are those jobs?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t think all students should be funnelled into a narrower range of jobs, but I could be persuaded that more of an emphasis on IT skills and perhaps even coding might be a sensible thing in schools, regardless of what students go on to study at university. I think people will need to be at least more digitally competent, if not necessarily expert.

Will technology ever reach saturation point – i.e., will we reach a point where no further innovation is practically needed?

Well, we’d be looking very far into the future indeed at that point, because a saturation point would imply, to my mind, that all the world’s problems have been solved. Perhaps more realistic is the prospect (still far off) of a ‘post-work world’ in which automation has taken hold to such an extent that large swathes of the population are without jobs. It is at that point that we will need to start thinking about solutions like Universal Basic Income, which the Labour Party is considering piloting in its next manifesto.

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently working on a book about the way in which the legacy of the British Empire shines through in day-to-day life… despite almost limitless examples, it is proving challenging!

Ryan Weeks is the editor of AltFi.com, one of the leading news and intelligence resources for fintech in the UK. His new novel, Pimple, explores the dramatic consequences of technological disruption. It is out now through Amazon UK priced £10.99 in paperback and 99p in eBook.

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