Much has been written about the impact of technological change and the dystopian future we could all face as a result of the rise of the robots. It can sometimes feel like we are preparing for a world in which artificial intelligence, algorithms and automation – rather than human endeavour and hard work – will shape every aspect of our society and our economy.
That sounds like a frightening prospect. But it needn’t be. The word robot derives from the Czech Robota, or forced Labour. If 21st century machines labour on our behalf, carrying out the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future, then we could be free to focus on activities that generate greater economic benefits for a greater number of people.
That is liberating. Rather than causing mass unemployment, new technology could help to solve the trio of economic problems that are currently holding Britain back – low growth, low wages and poor productivity.
That’s one of the findings of the new report published today by the independent Future of Work Commission, which I set up and co-chaired alongside Helen Mountfield QC.
The commission is made up of experts from academia, industry and the union movement. It spent a year asking what the future of work in Britain will look like in the context of the technological revolution.
Our report found that the most apocalyptic predictions about the impact automation will have on jobs are far too pessimistic. We believe automation and artificial intelligence can, with the right policy framework around it, create as many jobs as it destroys.
But our report also contains some stark warnings about the future too. Because we aren’t doing enough to exploit the opportunities created by this new world of work. Our chronic inability as a country to spend enough money on research and development is still holding us back.
One of our findings is that Britain currently has too few robots, not too many. We’ve been slower to adopt new technologies than other wealthy countries and the problem is getting worse not better. The number of industrial robots installed in Britain in 2015 was down 21 per cent on 2014 levels. The number of robots per 10,000 employees is one of the lowest in the OECD.
That is why our report calls for 3.5 per cent of GDP to be spent on R&D. That will bring us in line with other wealthy countries like Germany and Japan and help us become a leader in this new technological revolution in the same way we led the world during the industrial revolution.
To make that happen, we need to change our tax system so that companies that invest in technology are rewarded and provide them with financial incentives to do so. We also need to fast-track the skills this new technological revolution will require as it picks up pace. That means teaching a curriculum built around creative thinking and developing digital skills, with a specific focus on AI, so British children finish school equipped to pursue the jobs of the future.
I’ve always been excited by technology and the opportunities it creates. I’m what they call an early adopter. That’s one of the reasons I set up this commission. I wanted to understand how technological changes will change the world of work and I thought it was important to try and establish whether the stark warnings about automation were grounded in fact.
In recent years, we’ve read stark warnings that 11 million British jobs will be lost – in blue collar jobs as well as white-collar professions. We’ve heard that algorithms and artificial intelligence would make doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers obsolete.
But one of the main findings of our report if that there is much to be optimistic about if we harness the progressive power of the technological revolution.
If we make the right public policy decisions about investment, education and re-training, automation and AI can create good, well-paid and fulfilling jobs.
In short, we shouldn’t fear the robots. A former prime minister once famously instructed people to: “Hug a hoodie”. Perhaps we should also learn to embrace an android.
Tom Watson is deputy leader of the Labour Party and convener and co-chair of the Future of Work Commission.