The people of 2030 will be living in a much stranger world than we imagine. Although the pace of technological breakthroughs is already without precedent, our minds trick us into thinking that it will continue at the current rate. In fact, it will speed up. As famously observed by Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore back in 1965, the number of transistors on a microchip – in layman’s terms, “computing power” – tends to double roughly every year for a given amount of money. This explains why a modern USB-C charger is vastly more powerful than the computers that guided Apollo 11 to the moon – and the pattern still holds good today. The computers of 2030 won’t be ten times more powerful than those of 2020, they’ll be 1000 times as powerful. The world, as a consequence, will be radically transformed. One area where that will be especially apparent is automation.

McKinsey forecasts that in ten years' time, 70 percent of companies will use at least one type of artificial intelligence technology. In many cases, this will take the form of software that you won’t notice – it will operate behind the scenes, quietly making our lives and businesses more efficient and effective. Your electric car in 2030, for instance, will benefit from smart charging to draw the right amount of power in the most cost-effective way so as to reduce strain on the grid and cut emissions. Outfits such as the UK’s Octopus Energy already offer pioneering versions of this service. But there will be another, more bracing shift caused by AI, and it will take place where the field converges with robotics. This will blur the digital and physical world like never before – with far-reaching implications for the economy.

It will be especially visible in transport. Deloitte forecasts that fully autonomous cars – ones that can operate on all roads and in all conditions without any need for human intervention – could move from the “testing and ramp-up phase” to the “deployment” phase in 2030. Widespread acceptance will surely depend on whether the public can be convinced that these vehicles are not only dependable but also immune to cyber attacks. If that happens then new business models will coalesce: when people no longer have to drive, the inside of the car will be a valuable space and third parties will cut deals to be there. Video-on-demand services such as Disney+ may wish to have a presence; so too, perhaps, telemedicine outfits such as Teladoc – in a busy day it could be the perfect moment to have an appointment.

New forms of automated transport will also emerge in the battle to optimise distribution networks. Just look at Alphabet’s experimental drone delivery arm, Wing, which has now started European trials in Finland. It was once dismissed as a PR stunt but, over a two-week period during the Coronavirus pandemic, completed 1,000 deliveries. Or take Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drones, which are currently being test-flown in the Cambridgeshire countryside at a site that was expanded last year. And then there’s the burgeoning market for “sidewalk delivery bots” – little crates on wheels that autonomously ferry goods to a consumer’s front door. Starships Technologies, which recently raised $40m in Series A funding, is one of the big players, and has trialled its robots in over 100 cities, completing more than 100,000 deliveries. Since 2018, it has been operating commercially in Milton Keynes where it has partnered with the likes of Tesco and the Co-op. Right now, the notion of sharing the pavement with a robot is extraordinary. But just as the steam train went from being a spectacle to a fact of life over the course of the Nineteenth Century, so too will delivery drones simply become part of the fabric of our world in the Twenty-First. Indeed, a report from analyst IDTechEx suggests that by 2030 the total market for logistics, warehousing and delivery robots could be worth $81bn.

Where robots will have their most disruptive impact, however, will be in the factory. A study by Oxford Economics forecasts that by 2030 around 20 million manufacturing jobs globally could be lost to automation. There is a clear business imperative for factory owners to adopt robots: they can produce repeatable, high-quality work at speed. What distinguishes the coming wave from the ones you’ve long seen assembling cars on television ads is that they can learn. Thanks to AI, these robots can now start to take on tasks previously reserved for humans. Product picking, say, is elementary to you and I but hideously complex for a machine. Recognising the correct item, and handling it appropriately when it may be unfamiliar, present serious computing challenges. But these challenges are being solved. Much of the cutting edge work is being done in California, and recent developments there give us a sense of what will be filtering through the global economy over the coming decade. The director of the Berkeley Robot Learning Lab at UC Berkeley brought his company Covariant out of stealth in January, announcing that its artificially intelligent object-picking bots were now operational in the clothing, pharma and electronics industries. Vicarious, which counts Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as investors, has developed software that makes robots more independent. So if a robot is stacking boxes, it no longer requires the ones it’s picking up to be positioned in a predictable fashion. By 2030, manufacturing robots will only be more adaptable, more dextrous and will be able to be repurposed quickly for new tasks. China is set to have 14 million industrial robots in use at that point, according to Oxford Economics’ report, far outpacing the rest of the world and furnishing itself with an asymmetric advantage in manufacturing.

Even the most human sectors of all will feel the effects of the new automation economy. In retailing and wholesaling, PwC estimates that 2.25 million UK jobs are at risk of being automated by 2030. Robots are already being trialled for tasks such as monitoring stock and unloading trucks; multiple UK grocers are currently trialling shelf-scanning inventory robots made by Bossa Nova Robotics, which has a European HQ in Sheffield. In 2030, you may also see customer service robots answering shoppers’ queries and leading them to products. Healthcare, too, will see greater robot adoption. Doctors and nurses won’t be replaced, but the benefits of using robots to clean floors or to ferry medicine from the dispensary are obvious.

It sounds like a catastrophe for the labour market. And no doubt, the rise of AI robots will cause technological unemployment on a vast scale. Bill Gates has advocated a robot tax that could help retrain and re-employ laid-off workers. Yet not only will many robots be “cobots” that assist rather than replace human workers, but many heavyweight studies conclude that robotics will ultimately create more jobs than it kills. Clearly there will be new demand for technical jobs, as well as people that sell robots or strategise their use within an organisation. But the associated economic growth produced by automation should also create more demand for existing jobs that are intrinsically human and unlikely to be automated – teachers, scientists, architects. The World Economic Forum forecasts that while 75m jobs could have been displaced by automation within two years from now, more than 133m will have been created.

The challenge is for companies to grasp the enormity of what’s coming as soon as possible. Business leaders who wish to remain competitive should be analysing their own operations to see where they can benefit from AI (while always being wary of hype), and redesigning workplaces and workflows accordingly. Corporations tend to be resistant to change, so CEOs need to foster a culture that is open to automation, communicating effectively to their teams to ensure that they feel comfortable and optimistic about new ways of working. Most importantly, they need to get serious about upskilling existing staff. Amazon recently announced it would spend $700m by 2025 on just that. This is not philanthropy, it’s a way of creating a ready pool of talent to fill future data science and technology vacancies within the company.

There are other personnel issues that are going to become important as automation grows. For one, recruiting priorities are going to need to change. HR managers will need to look for people who are creative and nimble rather than those who are good at executing processes – that’s the stuff that will be automated. And where lay-offs do happen, these need to be handled with empathy. Nokia is a great role model: as it suffered defeat in the smartphone wars, its Bridge programme helped 18,000 redundant staff with seed capital, entrepreneurial coaching and routes to other employment. This kind of approach is not only the ethical thing to do, it will also look ever more attractive to prospective job applicants.

On a broader level, of course, we need educational reforms that better equip students for a future where adapting quickly to new kinds of work will be crucial. What the world of 2040 will look like is anyone’s guess, but one thing's for sure: it won't be like this one, and those best positioned to make a success of an unfamiliar paradigm stand to reap the benefits. Policy makers must grip this seemingly abstract problem as soon as possible. The true threat to society is not artificial intelligence – but human complacency.