Don't fear robots, embrace them instead!

Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson had an emphatic message at the launch of the Future of Work Commission final report last month – workers should ’embrace an android’ rather than fear the impending march of the robots and the impact robotics and automation will have on UK jobs.

Many are concerned that the inevitable increased use of robot technology in the coming years will lead to mass unemployment. The speech Watson gave did much to allay the fears that people have about what the future of a workplace dominated by algorithms, automation and artificial intelligence holds. Every aspect of our economy and our society will be re-shaped by these things, but Watson was at pains to argue that this should not be seen as a daunting or frightening prospect.

Instead he claimed that, far from eclipsing the traditional ideals of hard work and human endeavour, sensible government investment would reverse the country’s economic decline. Indeed, automation could actually create as many new jobs as it destroys.

The commission, which Tom Watson was a co-chair of, concluded that it is highly unlikely that mass technological unemployment will occur. It also argues that the issues that the UK faces in terms of inequality, low productivity and low wages has far more to do with poor decisions made by government rather than artificial intelligence, robots or automation.

The commission recommends that artificial intelligence becomes part of the secondary school curriculum as it sees this an important way to close the gap that currently exists between high-skilled and low-skilled jobs.

Playing on ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s famous call for people to ‘hug a hoodie’, Watson called for androids to be embraced – pointing to the fact that robots can be used for heavy lifting work – freeing humans up to carry out more meaningful work. Labour’s Deputy Leader argued that robots can, in fact, be liberating.

Another co-chair of the commission, Helen Mountfield QC, warns that while robotics should not be feared and need not spell the end of work, it is vital that we are proactively plan for the future rather than sit back passively and just let the technological change happen.

This means having a debate about what we want the future to look like, informing policy decisions and designing education accordingly so that the country is fully prepared.

The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, as it has been named, could see as many as a third of all work positions in the UK become automated by 2040. As an example, it is estimated that there will be 6,500 painters and decorators in the UK in 20 years. That compares with 110,000 today.

With figures such as these, it is no wonder that people are concerned about what is in store for the future, but it is important to appreciate the wide range of opportunities and completely new jobs that automation will create and bring to the workplace.

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