Could robots replace immigrants as the scapegoat for unemployment in post-Brexit Britain?
Britain is currently grappling with the prospect of a “hard Brexit”, after Theresa May signalled her intention to take the UK out of the European Single Market.
In doing so, the Prime Minister hopes to curb immigration and – among other things – ensure that more British jobs go to British workers.
But immigrants may turn out to be the least of British workers’ worries, if a report released this week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is anything to go by.
The report states that artificial intelligence is set to “fundamentally” change the way people live and work, and warns that government does not yet have a strategy for developing the new skills workers will need to succeed as the use of AI increases.
The film “I, Robot” explores some of the ways AI could disrupt society
“Concerns about machines ‘taking jobs’ and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries,” said Tania Mathias, acting chairwoman of the committee, adding that it was “conceivable” AI technology could displace some jobs over the coming decades.
“Since we cannot yet foresee exactly how these changes will play out, we must respond with a readiness to re-skill and up-skill,” Mathias said.
This fresh threat to British workers’ livelihoods is not one that can be tackled by locking down our borders – it’s one that already lives and thrives within them.
AI could start taking over from humans in a wide range of low-level jobs
Leading AI companies such as DeepMind, SwiftKey, Evi and Magic Pony were born in the UK, and are often hailed as proof that Britain is at the forefront of technological innovation.
Meanwhile, developments in areas such as robotics, nanotechnology and 3D printing are expected to cause massive disruption to labour markets worldwide.
A report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) earlier this year claimed that the rise of robots and artificial intelligence will wipe out 7.1 million jobs by 2020 , with the greatest losses in white-collar office and administrative roles.
These losses will be partially offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs – mainly in more specialised areas such as computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering – but this still equates to 5 million net job losses.
A robotic hand presses a button in a factory
What the Science and Technology Committee report states is true – we do need to do more to prepare for these massive societal changes, which could threaten millions of jobs globally.
However, we need to avoid going about it in the same blunderbuss way we’ve gone about dealing with immigration.
According to the UK’s technology trade association, techUK, being at the forefront of innovation means the UK can be at the forefront of shaping the practical and ethical decisions that will have to be taken as these technologies become more prominent.
“By embracing these technologies we get the opportunity shape their development and use, not just here in the UK but around the world,” said Sue Daley, Head of Big Data and Analytics at techUK.
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“We have a great opportunity here in the UK to help to define the future – especially give our global leadership in the development of AI.”
Paul Davies, Head of Policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology added that engineers with technology skills are going to be needed more than ever in the future.
“While concerns about technology replacing jobs are understandable, it is far more important and productive to focus on creating a future workforce with the right skills for the opportunities that AI and robotics will create,” he said.
Rob McCargow, artificial intelligence leader at PwC, emphasised the importance of a collaborative approach when it comes to building trusted and transparent AI systems to support future economic growth.
White-collar workers are most at risk
“Having the right standards in place is essential to take advantage of AI for the good of human kind, but we can’t just think about this from a UK point of view – AI has no regard for international borders so we need a coherent global approach to regulation,” he said.
“From an ethical point of view, we need to ensure there is diversity in the field at the point of technology creation. If the workforce creating these first forays into AI systems isn’t representative of the population, how can we ensure we’re creating unbiased products that are relevant to everyone?”
Ultimately, safeguarding British jobs in the age of artificial intelligence is not about rejecting the technology or seeing it as a threat, but recognising its potential and figuring out how to harness it for the good of the economy.