Robots will soon be moving in on the professionsby Tom Watson / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward a young Bostonian emerges from a state of suspended animation in the year 2000 and is startled to find the inequalities of his own era banished. A Utopian 21st-century America has abolished money, private enterprise and poverty—every industry is owned and managed for the benefit of all.
There are glimpses of our present in Bellamy’s vision of the future. It featured a form of credit card and giant warehouses which dispatch goods direct to the home. There is even an eerily prescient streaming service, a sort of Spotify which pipes music into living rooms. But this country of musical telephones, elegant libraries and communal dining halls is run by bureaucrats on strict utilitarian lines. In this land of plenty, workers retire at 45 after 24 years of industrial service, and then look forward to four decades of rest and recreation.
Bellamy’s optimism now seems hopelessly anachronistic, but—though he was writing when Victoria sat on the throne—he was prescient in asking the right questions about the future, particularly those about the nature of work. It is a question that remains every bit as relevant today, and political parties that fail to answer it could find themselves doomed. That’s why I’ve set up a Commission on the Future of Work, to bring together analysts and stakeholders. The aim is for it to report by next Autumn, identifying how things are changing, and figuring out how policy should respond.