Disruption - it's not what it used to be


John Birdwood, Director of Portfolio Management at Kleinwort Hambros, says the current pace of change in tech is slow compared to 110 years ago

Today most of the conversation around technology typically revolves around disruption.

We marvel at the seemingly relentless and dramatic change around us, but in truth, the pace of change is nothing new, and has probably even been surpassed in the past. We could be forgiven for not remembering, but the first decade of the 20th century saw huge upheaval on a scale to rival anything we are going through today.

We are currently astounded by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, new materials like graphene, autonomous transport, nano-technology and genetics; and all this is going on while we are still adapting to the two huge disruptive technologies that arrived in the 1990s – the internet and mobile phones. But anyone alive between 1900 and 1910 would have seen flight, radio, mass production techniques, the expansion of the petrol engine, the first modern plastic in Bakelite, along with the rapid spread of electricity and the telephone.

That level of disruption probably dwarfs what we are going through today, but even if it does, I have to concede that it might be happening even faster today. Also, many of the technologies from the 1900s were probably more tangible and easier to see, and that visibility would have made them easier to understand.

Irrespective of the reasoning, many people find today’s change disturbing. And the lack of understanding that underpins this concern is evident throughout all levels of society. As well as the workers fearing that robots are coming to take their jobs, it extends to the political classes, and that makes the disruption potentially more dangerous than it was 110 years ago.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony to Congress highlighted an important gap; he was talking a different language to the politicians interrogating him. If the understanding of the implications of the change is arguably behind the curve among those tasked with regulating it, that makes current disruption more of a threat.

As for the robot takeover, the fear is that machines will take people’s jobs, leading to increased unemployment and greater inequality between rich and poor, is prevalent.

But, despite these concerns, I remain convinced that technological advances will still produce a net benefit for society. Japan has embraced robotics perhaps more than any other nation, and has put machines to use to tackle its issues with an ageing population. Robots have taken on a lot of the literal heavy lifting involved in care work, helping the elderly in and out of the bath and so on.

When it comes to the threatened impact on general employment, it is also worth noting that, while Japan has the highest use of robots among large developed nations, it also enjoys the lowest unemployment levels.