The problem for the UK labour market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few. In 2015 the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 167 in Japan. By 2017, we represented just 0.6 per cent of industrial robotics shipments. The UK led the First Industrial Revolution because we embraced new technologies and the opportunities that they create. The risk we face is not a robot takeover of our workplaces, but that our lack of adoption and the reluctance of businesses and the Government to lead the way in the Fourth Industrial Revolution means other countries will seize the initiative and take the advantage of new technologies, not least the growth and jobs they bring, while we are left behind.
While we do not want to dismiss fears about technology replacing workers, we also urge policy makers, businesses and the public to think about the alternatives. If we fall further behind in productivity and the adoption of new technologies, then future investment decisions will not follow. Businesses, investment and jobs will move overseas. The UK’s low automation adoption is part of our lagging productivity, especially for SMEs, which is preventing a much-needed rise in economic growth, wages and living standards. Efforts to remedy this has been slow. The abolition of the Manufacturing Advisory Service has left businesses unsure where to look for support, while the Made Smarter Review has shown potential but has so-far been restricted to a single regional pilot.
The UK missed its chance to lead on developing industrial automation, but it should be adopting it. Where we have a new chance to lead and succeed is with service robotics and in AI, but only if we are supporting British businesses and researchers to innovate. The Government needs to provide support for businesses, through research funding and incentives for investment, and for academia, by ensuring our universities have access to researchers, investment and projects from around the world.
The school curriculum has become increasingly narrow in recent years. Yet, the areas in which people have a competitive and absolute advantage over robots is in the in creative industries, design and areas where human interaction is essential. Education and lifelong learning will be crucial to allow workers to retrain in areas where jobs will likely be creates in the years to come, and where tasks are at low risk of automation. We know already that there will be demand for STEM subjects, enabling people to design, build and programme the robotics, automation and data technologies required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But we also know that many of the technologies and jobs that people in education now will now have the chance to access in the future are yet to exist. A flexible and relevant school and university curriculum, as well as a large-scale expansion of lifelong learning and reskilling are essential and ensure opportunities don’t just fall to those with the ‘right’ degrees and skillsets, and enables the UK to improve on the only 17 per cent female workforce in the technology sector.
The ownership and use of new technologies, processes and robots is likely to make businesses richer and more powerful. For a fairer society it is important that we consider ownership models of technologies whilst being cautious not to stifle innovation. We have seen from previous inquiries that the practices of businesses such as Amazon and Uber can lead to workers being exploited by increasingly monopolistic firms who earn huge returns that do not flow back to the workers who help create that wealth. More co-operative ownership models, as well as greater employee engagement, stronger employment legislation and a fairer corporate tax regime are key to ensure public support for the benefits of a growth in automation, a rise in living standards and a fair economy and society.
Published: 18 September 2019