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Bank of England boss: The robots are coming but won't consign humans to the scrap heap

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"I would think twice about having a robot cut my hair," says Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England.

The man who has responsibility for research and statistics across the Bank is mulling over recent figures suggesting that millions of UK jobs are at risk of being automated.

Automation - and the disruption it will create - was a key theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

And Deloitte say as many as 11 million jobs, mainly across the retail and transport sectors, could be transformed by technology over the next 20 years.

It is a scenario that Mr Haldane describes as 'quite possible', although he insists the loss of jobs does not necessarily correlate to a loss of work.

"There are understandably fears over the possibility of the machines taking all of our jobs," he said, speaking to the Express & Star after addressing A-level students at Dudley College.

"In some ways that's a debate we've been having for hundreds of years. Go back 200 years and it was the Spinning Jenny. Today it is robots that could substitute for more of the tasks that humans are able to do.

"It used to be just manual work, now it is both manual and cognitive stuff. These are huge issues.

"We have seen the numbers that suggest jobs could be lost as a consequence of this robotic, so called fourth industrial revolution. I think that's possible. I think it is even likely.

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"But history tells us there is a big difference between the loss of jobs and the loss of work.

"What happened during the first industrial revolution, which took place on our doorstep here in the West Midlands, was that people moved.

"People lost their jobs in some places and gained them in others. Over the longer haul new jobs were created that more than met the needs of those that were lost.

"I think the same is likely to be true this time around.

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The nature of work might change a bit and that robots might do some of the things that were previously done by humans but that won't consign humans to the scrap heap.

"I'm not very likely at present to be employing a robot to be the nanny to my children, or indeed to act as a babysitter.

"We are a long way short of thinking that the answer to everything lies with machines."

JLR 'a fantastic example'

Mr Haldane cites the success of Jaguar Land Rover as a shining example of a firm that has moved forward by taking on more skilled workers at the same time as embracing technology.

The firm has become the biggest car maker in Britain, shifting 490,000 cars in 2015 – just six years after it almost went to the wall as sales slumped following the global financial crisis.

It now employs 35,000 workers in the UK and is at the forefront of the UK automotive industry when it comes to research and development.

Mr Haldane said: "JLR is a fantastic example of two sets of forces at work. They have taken on staff, right here in the West Midlands of course, as they have embraced technology.

"For me it is natural that we will adapt our practices as we always have towards those things that we do well.

"I'm a cautious optimist that the fourth industrial revolution will generate a similar sort of rise in wellbeing as that which followed from the first, second and third industrial revolutions."

UK growing steadily

Mr Haldane describes the current state of the UK economy as 'pretty solid' and says he is confident that it will continue to grow steadily over the next two years.

Last year growth was around 2.5 per cent, which Mr Haldane says is a 'decent rate' by international standards.

Figures due to be released on January 28 are expected to show that growth held up at a modest pace during the last quarter of 2015.

"We're not roaring away, but no one else around the world is roaring away either," he said.

"You don't have to look far beyond these shores to see countries that are slowing down.

"Part of the reason we have had wobbliness in financial markets in the early part of this year is because of people having concerns about growth slowing in different parts of the world.

"It could be China, it could be Brazil, Russia. Here in the UK as best we can tell we continue to grow pretty steadily."

It is these concerns about foreign markets that have led to concerns being raised about the possibility of a global recession.

Investors have seen one of the worst starts to a year on record, while oil prices now stand at 70 per cent lower than they were in the summer of 2014.

The IMF expects economic activity to increase 3.4 per cent this year followed by 3.6 per cent in 2017.

Mr Haldane says that although he believes that a global economic slowdown is a distinct possibility, the chances of a fall into negative growth are slim.

"We would have to fall a long way, or something very untoward would have to happen for that to fall into negative territory," he said.

"I think that is a reasonably unlikely event. Now are there things that could happen that could slow that rate of growth? Yes there are. It's true to say there are some concerns about how rapidly the Chinese economy is growing.

"These days China is of such a size and it's sufficiently well integrated into the world economy that when it sneezes there is a sense at which the world economy is at risk of catching a cold.

"Does that mean there is a chance that world growth could slow from current levels? Yes, there is a chance of that.

"Do I think there is a big risk of us being tipped into negative growth in the world economy? That strikes me as quite unlikely as things sit today."

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