Robotisation: time to face the future

Robots will soon be moving in on the professions
December 14, 2016

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.

In a new era of technological change—driven by automation and artificial intelligence—old assumptions about the world of work will be upended, with profound implications for all of us. Many statistical claims are heard: Deloitte suggests 35 per cent of UK jobs are at risk from automation, some other studies put that as low as 10 per cent, others as high as 50.

This is not just about drones that deliver goods to our doorsteps or the advent of driverless cars, although these innovations alone could revolutionise haulage and put HGV drivers out of work. The changes will affect blue and white collar jobs alike. When my daughter was born less than a decade ago, I was convinced she’d spend her school years learning to code, but coding is now being done by algorithms. Citibank estimates that a quarter of Wall Street jobs will be done by computers by 2020. Will ambitious parents still be pushing their children towards medical school when AI can diagnose illnesses and robots can dispense drugs? Computers can already screen for some cancers more effectively than human radiologists. That’s good news for all of us—except the radiologists.

Many professions could fall prey to technology. This year more Americans filed their tax returns using software than an accountant, and the world’s first AI lawyer was just hired by a bankruptcy law firm. Nor are the creative industries immune—the Press Association is looking at robots to write some sports reports.

Predicting the future can make fools of us all, but a politician who doesn’t try to understand where things are headed is guilty of negligence. The stakes are high. Globalisation and the financial crash have created a populist backlash, but these are small social tremors besides what could happen if the robots destroy established jobs and ways of life. To put it bluntly, low paid workers who currently face competition from immigrant workers at home or cheap labour overseas may soon wake up to discover their rivals are machines who don’t need to sleep or take holidays, and will never demand better pay.

As immigration and outsourcing have eaten into the wages of the left’s blue-collar base, so the emotional bond between those workers and “their party” has weakened. Just as the Democrats proved vulnerable in the Rust Belt, so Labour is as vulnerable to Ukip in the North and the Midlands, and to the SNP in Scotland. If automation and algorithms push the liberal middle classes from their perches, they too may go into revolt.

I’ve always embraced new technologies—I was the first MP blogger, and the UK’s first digital engagement minister—so I’m not proposing to hold back the tide. Those studies by Deloitte and others suggest that the number of jobs lost should be outstripped by the jobs created. But there will be disruption and a human cost, which we need first to acknowledge, and then address on the basis of evidence.

We need to establish what skills the workforce will need, and what training we need to invest in. If jobs for life are to be the exception, further education colleges could have a new—and bigger—role to play. If robots are to make everything else, can UK manufacture design the robots? With more automation, might jobs today regarded as less prestigious, like caring for the elderly, become more so, and command the salaries to match? How might employment law and corporate governance need to ensure that the fruits of new technologies, often developed with state-backed research, are fairly shared?

I am not gloomy about the future: technology is a tool of humanity, not the other way round. It may even allow all of us to retire at 45 one day, just as Bellamy imagined. At the least, we might be spared from the humdrum tasks at the office, just as labour-saving devices liberated us from chores at home.

The kindly doctor who wakes Adam West, the protagonist in Looking Backward, from his 100 years of slumber explains to him: “Only a century has passed, but many a millennium in the world’s history has seen changes less extraordinary.” The century to come may well be the same. Our grandchildren would be right to chastise us if we didn’t prepare.