Last year the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, gave a fear-inducing speech that warned of Armageddon in the jobs market. Robots threatened 15 million UK jobs, he said.
This dystopian picture of busy machines and queues of jobless Britons was replaced this month by a rosier view from PwC, which made the opposite claim: robots and artificial intelligence could create as many jobs as they destroy, which happens to be around 7 million.
Then the University of Oxford said 35% of UK jobs could be automated, while a 2017 McKinsey report warned 5% of UK jobs were highly automatable. The MIT Technology Review has identified at least 18 different predictions about automation
This article is not about robots, AI or even the debate raging over the impact of Brexit. It’s about the detachment from history and real life – stemming from a disastrously narrow education – that allows economists to make such claims, and the damage that does to public debate about important matters.
This month, the pressure group Rethinking Economics said Britain’s universities were failing to equip economics students with the skills that businesses and the government say they need. Following extensive interviews with employers, including organisations such as the Bank of England, it found that universities were producing “a cohort of economic practitioners who struggle to provide innovative ideas to overcome economic challenges or use economic tools on real-world problems”.
Moreover, the group said, “when political decisions are backed by economics reasoning, as they so often are, economists are unable to communicate ideas to the public, resulting in a large democratic deficit.”
You could easily level that criticism at the economists forecasting the impact of AI. What are people supposed to think when those who study the field come up with such wildly varying predictions? More importantly, what will politicians think they should do? Nothing, probably, given the confusion.
The Rethinking group is concerned that university departments only train, rather than educate, huge numbers of graduates for econometrics jobs across the banking, insurance and consulting sectors.