Robots can set us free and reverse decline, says Labour’s Tom Watson

Party’s deputy leader says people should not fear the ‘march of the robots’ and automation need not mean lost jobs

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Tom Watson, a Future of Work Commission co-chair, calls on Britons to ‘embrace an android’. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian
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Labour’s Tom Watson will call on society to “embrace an android” as he argues that the rise of automation in the workplace need not cause mass unemployment and should instead be welcomed.

The party’s deputy leader will make the comments at the launch of the final report of the Future of Work Commission, which has concluded that people should not fear the “march of the robots”.

Instead, it claims that if government investment is sensibly targeted, the technological revolution has the potential to reverse the UK’s economic decline and create as many jobs as it destroys.

Watson, who convened and co-chaired the commission, is expected to say: “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.”

He will argue that allowing “21st-century machines” to take on the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future will let the human workforce focus on activities that generate larger economic benefits.

“That is liberating. So I suppose what I’m really saying is: robots can set us free … A former prime minister once famously said ‘hug a hoodie’. Today, I’m asking you to embrace an android.” Watson will say.

However, the study admits that taking advantage of the change requires ensuring the workforce is ready to take on jobs that need a different array of skills.

The commission has brought together experts including the Nobel prize-winning economist Sir Christopher Pissarides, and Michael Sandel and Michael Osborne, professors from Harvard University and Oxford University respectively.

They conclude that Britain’s low productivity, falling wages and inequality are down to poor government decisions, rather than the result of automation.

Instead, they say “mass technological unemployment is highly unlikely”. However, to avoid problems, they call for action to prevent the growing gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, and in particular for “future-oriented planning” when investing in skills that will be necessary for a future workplace.

Recommendations include a specific artificial intelligence curriculum to be developed for secondary schools, including ethics training, alongside a universal, lifelong future skills account that would help people retrain over their working lifetime as workplace demands shift.

They also urge changes to tax and business rates regimes to incentivise companies to invest more in new technologies, an increase in research and development, and expanding employment protections to all workers including agency staff and contractors.

Helen Mountfield QC, who co-chaired the commission, said: “Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence don’t need to spell the end of work. But we cannot sit passively by letting technological change just happen.

“We need to decide what sort of future we want and make policy choices, design education and introduce a legal architecture to shape a future of good work which benefits everyone, in which the rewards of innovation are fairly shared.”

The report comes after it was claimed that at least one-fifth of jobs across Britain were at high risk of being automated, rising to 40% in some parts of the country.

The prediction by the Future Advocacy thinktank followed a warning from PricewaterhouseCoopers that more than 10 million workers were at high risk of being replaced by robots.

There is little evidence of mass fears in the UK of being pushed aside by automation, but a survey has found that more than 70% of Americans are waryabout a world in which machines perform tasks previously carried out by humans.

The report comes as John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, launched another study that claims the UK’s financial system is failing to deliver investment to the high technology sector.

The interim report, produced by Graham Turn of GFC economics, found that UK output from high-tech industries has fallen over the last 10 years.

“Under the Tories, we’ve seen more and more investment flowing into property speculation whilst high-tech firms have been starved of the money they need, and research spending has lagged far behind.” said McDonnell.

Turner said the worry was that regional inequality would rise due to a disproportionate number of tech companies being based in London and the south-east, and said there was also too little money spent on research and development.

“The pace of automation and technological change is accelerating, threatening established business models and creating an economy characterised by frequent ‘disruptive’ episodes. Analysis shows that banks are diverting resources away from industries vital to the future of this country.” Turner said.

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