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AI to affect a third of public sector jobs by mid-2030s



PwC report points to health and social care and education as main public service areas to be affected by the technology in the UK

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic automation is likely to make a slow start in affecting public sector jobs worldwide but could impact a third by the mid-2030s, according to a new report on the technology.

Global consultancy PwC has included the forecast in Will robots really steal our jobs? in which it analyses a dataset covering 29 countries compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It identifies three waves in the process over the next 15-20 years. The first ‘algorithm wave’ will run until the early 2020s, focused on the automation of simple computational tasks and analysis of structured data, and affect about 4% of jobs in public administration and defence.

The second wave, ‘augmentation’, will automate repeatable tasks and statistical analysis of unstructured data in semi-controlled environments, is already underway and will run until the late 2020s, ultimately affecting about 26% of jobs in the sector.

The third ‘autonomy wave’, automating physical labour and problem solving in real world situations, is going to extend to the mid-2030s and will lead to 33% of jobs being affected.

More vulnerable

Public administration jobs are by no means the most vulnerable to robotics: the first wave figures go to 6-7% for the finance, insurance, information and communication sectors, and in the long term transport, storage, manufacturing and construction will be much worse affected.

The report also highlights the five industries with the potential for high automation rates throughout the 29 countries, including two in public services: for the UK, 18% of the jobs in health and social care could be affected, and 8% of the jobs in education.

It says the estimates are based primarily on the technical feasibility of automation, and in some cases the extent may be less due to economic, legal and organisational constraints. Some things can be automated in theory but it may not be viable to do so in practice.

PwC also takes a generally positive stance on the overall prospects, predicting that AI, robotics and smart automation will contribute up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030; but it acknowledges the displacement of jobs and says governments need to make provision for this. It is a complex issue and the report says governments should at least look at the idea of a universal basic income, although it stops short of recommending this as a solution.

It also says that central and local government bodies should support the digital sectors in generating new jobs, for example through place-based strategies focused on university research centres, science parks and enablers of business growth. This should involve extending the latest digital infrastructure beyond the major urban centres.

Helping people

“Governments, business, trade unions and other organisations (e.g. the NHS and social care providers in the UK) all need to play their part here in helping people to adapt to these new technologies,” the report says.

“This will include training and retraining people in softer skills, such as creativity, problem solving and flexibility. On-the-job training will be important here, for example through degree apprenticeships that offer a mix of theoretical study and practical experience, and that are open to a wide range of people (including mature students) to promote social mobility.”

Image by Nick Amoscato, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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