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Oscar Williams

News editor

Equality Act should cover algorithmic discrimination, says Labour report

The UK’s equality legislation should be extended to cover algorithmic discrimination, according to a new Labour party report about technology and the future of work.

Launching the report today, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said Brits need not fear the rise of automation as it has the potential to create as many jobs as it destroys.

But he also called for legislative measures to protect people in a “world in which […] automation […] will shape every aspect of our society and our economy”.

The Equality Act 2010, the report says, should be extended “to allow a right to understand the basis for algorithmic decision-making and to prohibit discrimination by algorithms”.

In addition, it recommends the creation of a Standing Commission on Technology and Ethics within the recently announced Centre for Data Ethics.

The commission would work with partners from academia, civil society and industry to address the challenges of AI and tackle tough ethical and societal issues.

“We welcome recent academic and private initiatives to establish research units or ‘ethics boards’ which contribute to thinking about the ethical and social questions raised by the latest developments in technology,” the report says. “But this is not something that can be wholly outsourced: Government must take a lead.”

Watson said that if government takes the right steps to reskilling people whose jobs are replaced by automation, the “march of the robots” could be “liberating” as it would take on routine tasks and let people focus on jobs with greater economic benefits.

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

The commission behind the report included the Nobel prize-winning economist Christopher Pissarides, Harvard’s Michael Sandel and Oxford’s Michael Osborne.

An RSA survey published in September found that four million jobs nationwide could be automated, according to executives’ estimations of the impact on their own workforces. The finance, transport and media industries are most likely to be transformed by automation, the survey suggested.

But the researchers also found that just 14 per cent of companies had already invested in AI or robotics, or are planning to in the near future.

“Much will come down to the choices we make as a society,” they said. “However, these choices will be largely irrelevant unless the UK accelerates its take-up of AI and robotics.”