Automation – friend or foe?
by Ananya Jaidev, Senior Consultant

Automation has been feared by workers since the (first) industrial revolution. People in occupations from construction workers to surgeons are concerned they may soon lose their livelihoods to machines. This fear is particularly felt in the transport sector - from Uber’s interest in driverless cars and TfL’s driverless trains, through to automatic aviation control systems.

In 2015 the Bank of England, whose Chief Economist Andy Haldane has spoken of "a third machine age", reckoned up to 15 million jobs in Britain were at risk of loss to robots, AI programmes and other sophisticated machines. Others calculate that 35% of jobs in the UK could be “at risk” in this respect.

Consider aviation: more international carriers, particularly large airlines, use autopilot systems than ever before. Recent ComRes research for BALPA shows that laser attacks remain a concerning and important issue for pilots and trade bodies/professional associations that represent them (55% of BALPA pilots have experienced a laser attack in the past 12 months). Pilots also report that fatigue remains a key problem. Both are issues that automatic control systems can help tackle – if the workforce is provided with the skills and support they need to best harness the potential of automation.

Despite a record low in 2017 for aviation-related accidents, passenger and worker safety is not merely an issue of machines being more precise in their operation – the last five years have seen a number of accidents and serious incidents arising from automated flights. These can occur on the approach, when crew have to pay close attention to the flight path and automatic systems on top of their usual safety and service duties. Crew members have previously reported that automated flight control systems put additional pressure on them to perform their usual duties as well as the additional work of monitoring automated systems. As BALPA’s safety plan for 2017 explains, human errors and machine errors are intertwined and co-dependent, saying that: “Sometimes serious incidents can prove to be largely unforeseeable; however, in such incidents a well-rested, well-trained pilot, who is not overwhelmed, is often the last line of defence against an accident occurring.”

London Underground intends to introduce driverless trains in the 2020s – reportedly using drivers at first, slowly transitioning to being driverless. They will, however, retain one member of staff on board even when driven automatically. As might be expected, existing staff trade unions have expressed concern.

Yet automation need not spell doom for the labour force. It may relieve pilots of the trauma and distress of laser attacks, alleviate one of the aviation industry’s biggest issues – fatigue – and provide train drivers and operators with different working hours and potentially less stressful environments (an issue that has become thornier and more visible since the introduction of the Night Tube).

The Luddites were best known for objecting to technological innovation out of concerns over structural unemployment. However, this struggle was framed by objections to working conditions and a national economy that had been seriously harmed by the cost of the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps current fears similarly reflect wider concerns and the uncertainties caused by a rapidly changing, interdependent world where capital and the means of production are globally footloose.

The UK transport sector has to deal with numerous uncertainties, from the collapse of Carillion, a new rail minister and a new “emerging vision” for Northern Powerhouse Rail, to the debate around additional runways and the ongoing implementation of the Future Airspace Strategy. Brexit and Labour’s intention to nationalise the rail industry add to the wider climate of concern.

The world has seen technologically-led change come and go before, and the outcome is seldom either as expected or as bad as feared. Instead of placing the blame squarely on automation, perhaps it is time to consider how automation has the potential to relieve the workforce and the industry of some of its most deep-rooted and difficult issues – pay, conditions, hours. Perhaps we should start thinking about what automation can do for the workforce as opposed to what automation will do to the workforce.