12.Concerns about machines ‘taking jobs’ and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the potential economic and social implications of robotics artificial intelligence have been the subject of debate. This chapter outlines differing views on how robotics and AI may impact upon productivity, and shape employment structures, before turning to consider how the UK might respond.
13.The potential for robotics and AI to increase the UK’s productivity, particularly in manufacturing, was repeatedly cited throughout our inquiry. The Manufacturing Technology Centre was one of many who told us that an increased uptake of robotic and artificial intelligence technologies in manufacturing would lead to “increased productivity and a stronger economy providing wealth and security to a society at large”.
14.Several reports have reached the same conclusion. A study undertaken by the Copenhagen Business School in 2011 modelled how much productivity in manufacturing would increase if all industries in a country had the highest found level of robot-intensity. It estimated that productivity would rise in the UK by 22%. A more recent report published by Barclays Bank in 2015, based on a survey of manufacturers and its own economic modelling, estimated that “£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade”.
15.Improvements in productivity, driven by robotics and AI, will have implications for the UK workforce. We received conflicting views, however, about precise nature of those impacts. Some predicted rising unemployment, while others foresaw a transformation in the types of employment available, made possible by the increasing pervasiveness of robotics and AI throughout the world of work.
16.Google DeepMind told us that “we should expect that new areas of economic activity and employment will be made possible” by the increased use of AI, but that certain types of work and skills will decrease in relevance. Some argued that these ‘new areas of economic activity and employment’ would affect the structure of the workforce but would not diminish the overall employment rate in the UK—the creation of new jobs would more than compensate for those directly lost to robots and AI systems. As the Global Priorities Project explained:
During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.
17.Deloitte was similarly optimistic about the impact of the growth of robotics and AI on the workforce, noting that:
New jobs and, indeed, new industries have been created in the UK as technology has advanced and, looking back over the last century and a half, UK employment has more than doubled during a period of profound technological change.
18.Others were not so hopeful about the future and questioned whether this ‘fourth industrial revolution’ would follow the same pattern as those that had gone before. Innovate UK highlighted that while “previous technologies have always resulted in a net gain in employment, there is debate about whether this generation of technologies will create the same outcome”. Research by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at the University of Oxford estimated that 35% of jobs in the UK were at high risk of automation in the next 10–20 years. Conducting similar research to Frey and Osborne’s, the Bank of England suggest that that up to 15 million jobs in the UK could be at risk of automation over the same time period. Angus Knowles-Cutler from Deloitte clarified that Frey and Osborne’s calculations were made “purely from a technology point of view”, and that they did not factor in:
social and political resistance to that change, the ease or difficulty of implementation or the cost-benefit of human labour versus investment in the technology in the first place.
19.There is also debate about whether specific sectors are more susceptible than others to job destruction, or creation, by the advancement of robotics and AI. Future Advocacy pointed to the advent of autonomous cars which, it stated, could “bring redundancy to an entire industry of professional drivers”. Creative occupations—including musicians, architects, and artists—were found by Frey and Osborne to be much more resistant to automation. Nesta commented that the protection afforded by a job requiring creativity was unsurprising:
When one considers that computers will most successfully be able to emulate human labour when a problem is well specified—that is, when performance can be straightforwardly quantified and therefore evaluated—and when the task environment is sufficiently simple to enable autonomous control. By contrast, they will struggle when tasks are highly interpretive (tacit), geared at products whose final form is not fully specified in advance.
20.Creativity, however, may not provide long-term protection against automation. According to Dr Osborne, it was becoming “much less clear what remains as the preserve of human labour alone”, particularly as we start to see the development of “algorithms that can substitute for human cognitive work”, such as that done by “paralegals and junior lawyers, accountants and auditors”.
21.Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, reported in 2015 that those “most at risk from automation tend, on average, to have the lowest wage”. Angus Knowles-Cutler told us that, based on Deloitte’s modelling, the “jobs that today in the UK pay £30,000 or less are five times more vulnerable to being automated than jobs that pay £100,000 or more”. Deloitte described this as a “potential ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market, in which technology impacts primarily on middle-income jobs”:
The sector with the highest number of jobs with a high risk of automation was wholesale and retail, with 2,168,000 jobs, 59% of the total current workforce, with a high chance of being automated in the next two decades. This was followed by transport & storage—1,524,000 jobs, 74% of the workforce—and human health & social work—1,351,000 jobs, 28% of the workforce.
22.These prospective changes may affect income inequalities. While acknowledging that robotics and AI could generate “a host of new occupations”, Dr Osborne voiced concerns that these occupations “might not be sufficiently well paid to substitute for those that are automated away […] which might lead to exacerbation of inequality”. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, has described such potential inequality as representing “the greatest societal concern associated with the fourth industrial revolution”.
23.The possible speed of such changes to the UK workforce—and whether they would be incremental or rapid—is not clear. Professor Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield thought that “impacts can be expected to occur over several decades, allowing time to adapt”. Research by McKinsey, however, noted that AI was contributing to a transformation of society “happening ten times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact” of the Industrial Revolution.
24.Instead of focusing on job creation or destruction, some witnesses considered the potential for robotics and AI to support, or augment, existing roles. Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, thought that by framing the “conversation [as] all about humans versus machines” the discussion began “on the wrong foot”. Technology, he stressed, had:
never been about humans versus machines. The story, certainly from our perspective, in the personal computer revolution is about how we augment humanity and how we enable human beings to rise up and achieve more than they could on their own.
25.Angus Knowles-Cutler from Deloitte similarly recognised that while “we often think of this as […] a human versus a machine or a robot” it was, in fact, far “subtler” and about providing support for “tasks within jobs”. Also pointing to the advent of the personal computer, he noted that although a computer had helped to eliminate the repetitive tasks from his day:
it did not destroy my industry [consultancy], and in fact my industry is much larger than it was back in 1985, so there is a subtlety there that is very important. These are tasks where technology is enabling us to be more effective as productive workers.
26.In a similar vein, Professor Nick Jennings, representing the Royal Society’s Machine Learning Working Group, described robotics and AI as “an augmenter of many of the professional white collar activities”. Rather than replacing humans, he emphasised that the “key future for AI” lay in its potential to “work in partnership” with people. Drawing on the example of applying AI to the medical sciences, Professor Stephen Muggleton highlighted how, with “large amounts of data from genome projects and testing, […] machines [were] able to go through millions of hypotheses and select the best out of a large space and then present it to scientists”. This approach, he explained, did not replace scientists but it could amplify “what they can do, much in the same way as a telescope amplifies what astronomers could do”.
27.Though we heard a wide range of views on how the nature of work may change, our witnesses generally agreed that learning new skills, and adapting our education system, would help to ensure that the UK realised the full range of opportunities presented by robotics and AI, while also managing its potential risks. Deloitte, for example, argued that the UK’s ongoing success would depend on the ability of businesses, educators and government to anticipate future skills requirements and provide the right training and education for the coming decades. TechUK stated that the key skills needed in robotics and AI were “in areas such as software development, systems design, engineering, programming and data science”. It added, however, that all these “have been reported areas of domestic shortage right across tech firms in the UK”.
28.Addressing the UK’s digital skills ‘crisis’ (discussed in detail in our reports on the Digital Skills Crisis and the Big Data Dilemma) was repeatedly identified in written submissions as essential in order to mitigate some of the more potentially negative impacts of robotics and AI on employment. As a Committee, we have been clear that digital exclusion, and systemic problems with digital education and training, need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the Government’s Digital Strategy; a document that was due to be published in January 2016 but which has been subject to a series of delays.
29.According to Google DeepMind, one of the “most important steps we must take is [ensuring] that current and future workforces are sufficiently skilled and well-versed in digital skills and technologies, particularly STEM subjects”. Achieving this goal may require the current workforce to be re-skilled, or up-skilled. As the EPSRC’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network explained:
the Government needs to tangibly support the workforce in adjusting their skills and business in creating opportunities based on new technologies. Training in digital skills and re-educating the existing workforce are essential to maintain the competitiveness of the UK.
30.Professor Rose Luckin from the UCL Institute of Education made a similar point, noting that “whether your entire job has been replaced” or “certain parts of your job are automated”, “different skills” will subsequently be required and workers will need to be retrained. She questioned, however, what progress the UK had made in this area:
I do not feel that at the moment we are equipping either students in school or workers in the workforce with the requisite skills to know how to adapt themselves to use the automation they are being offered to best effect. We need to take that on board and make some changes to address it.
31.Professor Luckin stressed that the structure, focus and delivery of the UK’s education system needed to evolve, in order to prepare students for a future where robotics and AI were commonplace. She explained that, currently, the “very things on which we focus our education system are the routine cognitive skills that are the easiest to automate”. Future Advocacy suggested that the education system should be adapted to “focus on things that machines will be less good at for longer” such as “creativity, ideation, judgement, inter-personal skills”. Dave Coplin from Microsoft also emphasised the importance of creativity. While recognising that STEM skills were “really important” he noted that:
Without art and creativity, innovation is dead. We could have a bunch of scientists, which would be brilliant, but their ability to be creative in the future world of work is the thing that makes them successful.
32.By talking about STEM “in exclusivity of the other skills that will be required”, Mr Coplin suggested that “our ability to be successful” was being curtailed. Instead he advocated showing young people, via inspirational role models, how individuals can be creative through:
a combination of their human skills—empathy and creativity—and their ability to manipulate the technology to deliver a great outcome […] We do not need to frighten them off with a bunch of science; we need to show them how creative they can be and how it is a blended world.
33.Professor Luckin highlighted that bringing AI techniques into education also held “unique potential to mitigate [changes to the jobs market] by providing lifelong skills development to the workforce”. She gave the example of ‘Intelligent Tutoring Systems’ that use AI techniques “to simulate one-to-one human tutoring, delivering learning activities best matched to a learner’s cognitive needs and providing targeted and timely feedback”, without a teacher having to be present. Yet, according to Professor Luckin, there was “little awareness […] in government of the existence of AIEd [AI in education] or of the implications of AIEd for teaching and training the current and future UK workforce”.
34.The Government’s less than wholehearted engagement does not appear to be limited to AI in education. In its initial written evidence, the Government simply commented that it recognised “the broader impact of RAS [Robotics and Autonomous Systems] on the UK economy, including employment” and that the:
discussion of these issues involves experts in law and computer science, the National Academies, the Alan Turing Institute, the Information Commissioner’s Office and other relevant bodies.
There was no mention, however, of the Government in these discussions. When we asked the Government to clarify its role in addressing the implications of AI on society, it stated that it did have “a role to play in managing and mitigating any risks that might arise”, adding that it would:
continue to work with the Royal Academies, the Government Office for Science, and others such as the Aerospace Technology Institute and Alan Turing Institute to inform decisions about ethical issues and appropriate governance issues for AI.
35.Though it was not referred to in the Government’s written evidence, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES)—an executive, non-departmental body sponsored by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—reported on The Future of Work in 2014. The publication considered several scenarios for a more automated future, as well as the steps that policy makers, employers and individuals could take to prepare for tomorrow’s world of work. UKCES reports, however, do not receive a formal Government response, and the Government provided no indication that it had engaged with its findings. Instead, the Government announced on 21 July 2016 that “all operational activities of UKCES will be concluded by the end of 2016 and it is expected the organisation will be wound up in line with the end of its financial year, 2016–17”.
36.Advances in robotics and AI hold the potential to reshape fundamentally the way we live and work. While we cannot yet foresee exactly how this ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will play out, we know that gains in productivity and efficiency, new services and jobs, and improved support in existing roles are all on the horizon, alongside the potential loss of well-established occupations. Such transitions will be challenging. As a nation, we must respond with a readiness to re-skill, and up-skill, on a continuing basis. This requires a commitment by the Government to ensure that our education and training systems are flexible, so that they can adapt as the demands on the workforce change, and are geared up for lifelong learning. Leadership in this area, however, has been lacking. It is disappointing that the Government has still not published its Digital Strategy and set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills it needs to thrive.
37.Digital exclusion has no place in 21st century Britain. As we recommended in our Big Data Dilemma, Digital Skills Crisis, and Satellites and Space reports, the Government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.
22 In the 19th Century, for example, the Luddites—textile workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire—led a workers’ uprising throughout parts of England to protest against the introduction of new technologies, like automated looms, which were being used in the textile industry in place of their skilled labour.
23 Nesta ()
24 Manufacturing Technology Centre (). See also, for example, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) () para 26; Professor David Lane () para 2.16; techUK () paras 2 & 15; Innovate UK () para 25
25 Lene Kromann, Jan Rose Skaksen, Anders Sorensen, Automation, labor productivity and employment - a cross country comparison, CEBR, Copenhagen Business School, Working Paper, 2011
26 Barclays, November 2015, p 4
27 Google DeepMind () para 2.2
28 See, for example, Manufacturing Technology Centre (); Robotics & Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group () para 15
29 Global Priorities Project () para 3. The Global Priorities Project is a collaboration between the Centre for Effective Altruism and the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.
30 Deloitte ()
31 Innovate UK () para 16
32 Carl Benedikt Frey, Michael A Osborne, , Deloitte, 2014
33 ‘Labour’s Share’ - a speech given by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, to the Trades Union Congress, London, 12 November 2015
34 Q86 [Angus Knowles-Cutler]
35 Future Advocacy () para 3.1
36 Carl Benedikt Frey, Michael A Osborne, , Deloitte, 2014, p 6
37 Nesta ()
39 ‘Labour’s Share’ - a speech given by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, to the Trades Union Congress, London, 12 November 2015
41 Deloitte ()
43 Klaus Schwab, , World Economic Forum, (January 2016)
44 Professor Tony J Prescott () para 1
45 Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, Jonathan Woetzel, ‘The four global forces breaking all the trends’, McKinsey Global Institute (April 2015)
46 Q118 [Dave Coplin]
49 Q9 [Professor Jennings]
50 Q9 [Professor Muggleton]
51 Deloitte ()
52 techUK () para 24
53 techUK () para 24
54 See, for example, Google DeepMind (ROB0062) paras 2.2–2.6; Innovate UK (ROB0060) para 17; Geoff Pegman (ROB0059) para 2.5; Autonomous Intelligent Systems Partnership (ROB0049)
55 Science and Technology Committee, Second Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 270, paras 14 &15
56 Google DeepMind () para 2.2
57 EPSRC UK-RAS Network () para 5
58 Q96 [Professor Luckin]
59 Q96 [Professor Luckin]; see also Manufacturing Technology Centre ()
61 Future Advocacy () para 3.2
64 Professor Rose Luckin ()
65 Professor Rose Luckin ()
66 Professor Rose Luckin ()
67 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) () para 24
68 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ()
69 UK Commission for Employment and Skills, , February 2014
70 [Update on the UK Commission for Employment and Skills: Written statement] 21 July 2016
5 October 2016