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Tom Watson

MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Tom Watson: the problem the UK has is not that we have too many robots, but too few

Like the industrial revolution before it, the technological revolution will reshape our economy and society in ways we can’t yet imagine or predict. That is a daunting prospect, but it needn’t be. If we make the right political decisions now – and acknowledge the state has a role to play in preparing our workforce for the future –  many of the predictions about the human cost of automation and artificial intelligence are likely to prove far too pessimistic.

I’ve always been excited by technology and the new opportunities it creates. But some of the most apocalyptic reports about the impact of automation, in particular, made me wonder if I was right to be so optimistic. Eleven million UK jobs lost, according to one. Technology making doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers obsolete.

It seemed obvious to me that we needed to look in more detail at some of these predictions: to ask what is really going on, and to think about what we can do about it. That’s why I set up the Future of Work Commission, which published its first report this week. The commissioners have world-class expertise in business, engineering, education, philosophy, employment, social enterprise, robotics and machine learning, and include an economic adviser with a Nobel Prize in economics.

They spent a year interrogating the evidence, asking some fundamental questions about the nature of work and making recommendations about how we can ensure everyone benefits from the technological advances that are already making themselves felt. At its best, a job is a source of pride and part of our identity as well as a means of paying the bills. That’s why the Commission recommended a Charter for Good Work, which would enshrine the principle at the heart of public policy-making that the quality as well as quantity of jobs created in a growing economy is vital.

The Commission took evidence about what is likely to happen to the world of work in the future – both with the right interventions and without them. Its central conclusion is a heartening one. It found that many more tasks are likely to be automated in future – but that this can enhance our jobs, not destroy them. The tasks that are less vulnerable to automation involve our most human qualities: creativity, care, teamwork, critical thinking and imagination.

And there is more good news. Our report found that the most apocalyptic predictions about the impact automation will have on jobs are far too pessimistic. We believe automation and artificial intelligence can, with the right policy framework around it, create as many jobs as it destroys.

But crucially, the number of workers who are actually displaced – rather than retrained or redeployed – will depend on us. That’s why our report recommended a system of lifelong learning credits that can be used at any time throughout a long working life to acquire new skills when they are needed.

The report also contains some stark warnings about the future, however. The truth is we aren’t doing enough to exploit the opportunities created by this new world of work. In that sense, Britain is woefully unprepared for the technological revolution. If that is to change, we need to embrace strategic planning and state intervention – both of which are anathema to a Tory party that is still in hoc to an outdated ideology that insists on the primacy of the market. Our chronic inability as a country to invest in people and technology, and spend enough money on research and development is still holding us back. Put simply, the problem the UK has at the moment is not that we have too many robots, but too few. That is a problem today, but it will be a disaster tomorrow.

That is why our report calls for 3.5% of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2030, and within that a much higher element dedicated to technology. We recommend fixing it as a percentage of GDP. That will bring us in line with the average for other wealthy countries. To help make that happen, we need to change our tax system to reward companies that invest in technology and provide them with financial incentives to do so.

I believe Labour is winning the argument about investment. Anyone who runs a business knows that borrowing to invest is not financially reckless. In today’s automated world, the reckless thing to do is to fail to invest. So we need to encourage investment in technology, to benefit our economy, our businesses and our workers.

We also need to think about the changing returns to labour and capital to make sure that new gains from increased productivity don’t accrue just to those who own or control the technology. That means properly involving workers in the adoption of new technology. Employees have a long-term interest in the success of a business. If they are properly involved in decision-making and strategy, and if new technology is introduced with their participation, not imposed on them, then everyone stands to benefit.

If the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future can be carried out by 21st century machines, then the workforce of the future will be free to focus on activities that generate greater economic benefits for a greater number of people.

That is liberating. So I suppose what I’m really saying is – robots can set us free. Free to pursue working lives in which everyone will learn new skills, not once during a long career – but three or four times. Free to take advantage of new industries and jobs, many of which haven’t even been created yet. Free to use the knowledge we acquire at school – which must teach a curriculum built around creative thinking, alongside computer science and digital skills – to pursue fulfilling and rewarding jobs.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party.