Small cardboard robot sitting at a desk

Embrace the rise of robots, Future of Work Commission advises UK workforce

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The Future of Work Commission has concluded that although Britain is unprepared for mass automation, predictions of increased automation leading to mass unemployment are far too pessimistic, and fail to account for how emerging technologies can create new jobs.

Today, the Future of Work Commission – made up of politicians, academics, engineers and representatives of other sectors – launched their report on the future of jobs. The report is part of an ongoing public debate on how the world of work will be transformed by technology in the near future.

Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party and co-chair of the commission, introduced the report in a keynote speech in which he spoke about the need to prepare for automation, and encouraged British people to “embrace an android”.

While his experiences with technology were predominantly positive, Watson said, recent stories in the news had made him “increasingly concerned” about the impact of technology on personal and work life, particularly predictions of mass technological unemployment.

“It is clear that technology has surprised us about how quickly it is changing the world of work,” he said. “And this year it has become clear that Britain is not ready for the technological revolution.”

Britain has a “chronic inability” to invest in research, skills and technology; this was a “problem today, but will be a disaster tomorrow” if not addressed, Watson argued. His words echo the conclusions reached by the commission, who state in their report that, unlike countries such as Germany, the UK is not prepared for the technological revolution.

Preparation for this revolution will require strategic planning, particularly with regards to work, the report says. A failure to prepare could result in the continuation of falling wages, growing inequality and vulnerability of workers.

Generating benefits from technological change and spreading these benefits is a “moral, social and economic imperative”, the commissioners wrote, and can be addressed by focusing on jobs in an increasingly digital future: “a sharper and more consistent focus on work is the best way to harness new opportunities and share the benefits of the technological revolution for the common good.”

One of the key recommendations of the report is that the government draws up and commits to a “Charter for Good Work” which highlights and defends good quality work in the UK: promoting dignity, security, autonomy and availability to all. The commission also recommended the creation of a Futures Unit in Whitehall to ensure that the government is up to date with technological developments, the commission of a white paper on the future of work and the exploration of a new mandate for the Bank of England such that the Bank may help balance inflation, growth and employment.

Despite growing discussion of the potential necessary of a universal basic income – a guaranteed state payment to every citizen of a country which covers all basic needs in a future of mass technological unemployment – the report does not mention this as a possibility.

This is because the commission has concluded that work is a major part of personal and social identity; playing a greater role than to provide basic financial support. Discussions about the future of work in the future should be focused towards ensuring that work is fulfilling, they argue, rather than a work-free future. A universal basic income could be risk being a “universal redundancy package”, Helen Mountsfield QC, co-chair of the commission, told E&T. Work, she said, is “intrinsic to human beings” and “matters for its own sake”.

Mountsfield told E&T that she would like to see the recommended Charter for Good Work address the issues of skills and innovation in the UK, as well as legal aspects of the changing nature of work, for instance, how the legal definition of a “worker” is being transformed by technology.

The future of jobs, the commission found, has the potential to be “liberating”, thanks to increasing automation in the workplace. The commission argues that having more robots performing routine jobs has the opportunity to free human workers from dull, unfulfilling work if the government handles technological change appropriately.

“The problem is not that we have too many robots but that we have too few,” Watson said during his keynote speech at the report launch.  “What I’m really saying is that robots can set us free […] just as one former prime minister said “hug a hoodie”, I’m now asking you to embrace an android.”

“People should not fear the march of the robots.”

Professor Sir Christopher Pissarides, the Nobel prizewinning economist, commented at the launch that increasing automation in the workplace could result in increased productivity and shorter work weeks, although in order for robots and AI to bring benefit to all, politicians must play a role in creating good quality jobs available to everybody, largely by investing in public services and infrastructure.

In order to make a success of technological transformation, current workers must be given the opportunity to reskill, while young people should be taught a curriculum which combines arts, ethics and other subjects requiring creative thinking with computer science and digital skills, the commissioners recommended.

They recommend, among other things, that the government establishes a universal “Future Skills” account to enable individuals to develop new careers over their lifetimes.

Lifelong learning is a vital part of empowering workers in an increasingly automated age, said Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes – an organisation with encourages girls and young women to consider technical careers – and a commissioner. Imafidon commented that in the near future, technological literacy could be seen as an expected form of literacy taught in all schools.

At his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in September, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, argued for the establishment of a “National Education Service” to allow for free lifelong learning for all British citizens, largely in order to cope with the oncoming technological revolution.

With regard to promoting innovation, the commission recommended that the government increases its investment in research to 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2030, putting the UK in line with the OECD average. These investments should be dedicated largely to new technologies, even in sectors vulnerable to disruption. This could be achieved, the commission suggested, by offering financial incentives to companies which invest in research and development.

Watson said that while many people and organisations are critical of public investment, he believed that: “In today’s automated world, the reckless thing to do is not to invest.”

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