Could robots destroy freelancing?

Could robots destroy freelancing?

A look at how virtual machines could pose a threat to the freelancing industry

The rise of the machines has started and it has got the workforce worried – but the freelance community is perfectly placed to buck this trend and flourish under the robot revolution.

The increase in automation and machine-based learning is predicted to hit the employment space hard. More than 10 million UK workers are at high risk of being replaced by robots in the next 15 years, according to a recent report by consultancy firm PwC.

Don’t panic. The Consumer Spending Prospects and the Impact of Automation on Jobs report also predicts that automation will boost productivity and create fresh job opportunities in service sectors that are less easy to automate.

Another report, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Their Impact on the Workplace, from the International Bar Association (IBA), identifies the creation of new job roles as the automation of routine tasks gathers pace. One such role is the “crowdworker”, who is a freelancer that offers their skills via an online platform.

In other words, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence will not curb freelancing but enable more people to join the self-employment sector, according to Dr Gerlind Wisskirchen, partner at law firm CMS and co-author of the IBA report. 

Dr Wisskirchen said: “It will increase the number of freelancers and self-employed people.

“We can already see that in the US, where 39 per cent of all workers are freelancers, and this will rise to 50 per cent in the next three years due to the gig economy and the changing structure of how companies do work.”

For example, companies will be less concerned with employing the right person for the job – but finding the right person for a specific project. Digitisation is an enabler, as remote working teams can be formed across multiple locations.

“It is not just a chance for freelancers but for everyone,” Dr Wisskirchen added.

Freelancers will shine in this competitive marketplace because they are result-driven and competitive due to the nature of the self-employment sector, according to Dr Wisskirchen.

He said: “Freelancers have many advantages over other employees – but the risk of being replaced by robots or algorithms is alike for employees and freelancers and mainly depends on the type of work.

“The more repetitive and monotonous the work is, the higher the risk.”

Robot wars

So, how can you make sure your work is protected as a freelancer?

Creativity could be your most important commodity in this brave new world. A recent report by the UK-based innovation and research foundation, Nesta, found that creative jobs are more resistant to automation.

This doesn’t mean we need more actors, artists and other creative souls. In the future, critical and problem-orientated thinking skills will be in high demand.

The Nesta Creativity vs Robots report estimates 24 per cent of UK jobs require people to be highly creative in sectors including education, management, computers, engineering and science.

Working with AI

Another avenue that freelancers could exploit is the increasing demand for machine learning and user experience design skills.

Freelancing platform Upwork revealed that the fastest growing skill in demand on its site during quarter 4 of 2016 was natural language processing – a field of computer science where the interaction between computing languages and human language is developed.

In other words, it’s the nuts and bolts behind your interactions with Siri or your Amazon Echo device.

“As society becomes more and more specialised, businesses will rely on freelancers with the most current skills. Take natural language processing, for example – hiring freelancers allows businesses access to sharply honed skills that simply aren’t available elsewhere,” Upwork CEO, Stephane Kasriel said in a statement.

A chance for change

The knock-on effects of increased automation could also enable real legislative change for the self-employment sector as numbers grow.

Healthcare and pension benefits are two key areas that need addressing according to Dr Wisskirchen, who said: “This is where the government needs to step in. We need to give freelancers a certain level of social security.”

This is certainly an area where the UK Government is lagging behind as its policies are more reflective of the working situation for the masses in the 19th century, as opposed to the 21st century when self-employment is on the rise.

As the recent debacle around the planned and then rejected proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed shows, the Conservatives underestimate the strength of the self-employment sector.

Opposition parties may try to take advantage of this issue during the election campaign. Labour previously argued that the UK Government had its priorities “absolutely wrong” because it was willing to cut corporation tax, yet raise taxes for the self-employed.

The unions also need to re-evaluate their stance on the self-employment sector as it grows due to the rise in automation.

Dr Wisskirchen added: “It’s very striking that the unions have not started to see how freelancers could add to their membership numbers and expand their business models.”

The robot revolution is only the start of the story.

It is not a threat to the self-employed sector, but more an opportunity. An opportunity for real legislative change to give the increasing number of freelancers the rights they deserve as this way of working becomes the norm.

Just as automation and artificial intelligence will enter the mainstream employment sector on a scale never seen before, so will freelancers.

It’s less of a robot revolution and more of a workforce evolution, and the adaptability and creativity of freelancers mean we will not just survive, but thrive in this brave new world.