Technology means the world of work is changing – this new, much-talked-about industrial revolution will shape the coming generation of workers’ lives. It may be full of unimagined jobs, robots and drones, or it may be full of artificial intelligence and a truly ubiquitous internet. Whatever turns out to be the case, it will be better for the UK to be at the forefront of this new world order than at the back. Better that we capitalise on our huge geographical, technological, academic and business advantages to become the revolutionaries, rather than have this revolution done to us.
With that in mind, the biggest opportunity this government can seize is to align a new industrial strategy with the Chancellor’s stated ambition to invest in research and development with unprecedented vigour. Done right it will take full advantage of Britain’s uniquely appealing position between Silicon Valley, Europe and beyond. And done responsibly it will protect the rights of workers as the global economy evolves to adapt to the internet age, as well as making sure that global cooperation means taxes are collected wherever they are due.
At the most basic level of any technology strategy, however, is of course infrastructure. Those new companies, from Uber to every microbusiness that relies on eBay, are nothing if they and their prospective customers do not have instant access to the web at a speed that fosters innovation.
So universal broadband is a transformative commitment that should be welcomed. It will build on the existing roll-out of superfast broadband that has delivered coverage to British people at an unprecedented rate in Europe, and our more recent plans for increasing full-fibre coverage and development of 5G – the technologies that will ensure we have digital networks that are fit for the future. New technologies, from a host of providers, will mean that 5G is as important as fibre in providing a key part of the technological infrastructure we will need in the future, and the government’s conscious bid to promote a mixed economy in which communities help themselves wherever possible is to be welcomed. The devil will be in the detail, but it always is.
In itself, the Universal Service Obligation is an excellent thing, but it is also a foundation for the future. Of course, the 10Mbps starting point is 10Mbps more than those whom it will benefit most are getting at the moment, but it is not a speed that any government would wish to set in stone. I have spoken myself in Parliament of “digital inflation” requiring regular analysis of what the right figure should be for the USOs of the future, and asked that they also consider latency and upload speed as much as they consider download speeds. In short, that means that for some, solutions such as satellite connections may have a part to play, but nobody should pretend that these expensive workarounds will be sufficient for even a small part of the mass market.
On top of this infrastructure bedrock, businesses will increasingly rely on new technologies to increase their productivity, which is why forward-thinking approaches to the regulation of driverless cars, drones and AI will be crucial. When I was first elected in 2015, I was surprised to discover the government already had a driverless cars unit at the Department for Transport, but it is just one indication of the long-term groundwork required for these truly transformative ideas to become reality. Likewise, with Gatwick Airport recently seeing a runway closed due to drone activity, it is important to acknowledge that when new and old technologies meet, there is a host of issues to sort out. More drone deliveries might mean less freight transported in other ways, but government’s responsibility is to smooth the transition process as much as it possibly can; there is a balance between backing the Luddites and pretending that all new thinking is progress. But we should bear in mind that all previous industrial revolutions, disconcerting though the short-term may have been, have created jobs, and improved human health and wellbeing. There are jobs today, some of them fairly new, that in the years to come will be as niche as chimney sweeps and coopers. We are only now working out what those jobs are.
The internet, too, is giving life to human behaviour that is both good and bad: the huge amounts of money raised for charities and individuals, from the Icebucket Challenge to the victims of terrorist attacks, are new and unprecedented. But there is also unprecedented levels of abuse, radicalisation and extremism that technology and technology companies cannot simply dismiss as too difficult.
It was not that long ago that images of child abuse were dismissed as too numerous and too diverse to be detected automatically; today, doing so is routine. Likewise, no responsible company would seek to provide a safe space online for terrorists. Government and business must co-operate to address these unique challenges because doing so is in all our interests.
I’m optimistic about robotics and artificial intelligence providing some of the solutions both to those deadly serious challenges and also to the challenges of ageing, unhealthy jobs and unhealthy lifestyles. The government’s commitment to the research and the infrastructure that underpins all of that will be most effective when it is seen in the context of the challenges facing the whole public sector, and where collaboration between diverse areas of government and business is encouraged at every turn.
As Britain prepares to leave the EU, we will have opportunities to write our own regulations in a way that we’ve not been able to for more than 40 years. That position on the world stage is unique, and seizing it will require the balancing of a host of competing interests. But the prize at the end is a world-leading position for our businesses and our citizens that nobody should doubt.