Why AI must put people first

Technology and skills policy are interlinked, writes the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

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For a brief period during the Industrial Revolution in France, the machinery that pumped out shoes at a rate faster than any cobbler, group of cobblers or an entire cottage industry of cobblers could ever match with their bare hands, came to a grinding halt. Traditional French wooden shoes, sabots, had been wedged in the mechanism. Clogs in the cogs was the origin of the word sabot-age.

Humans, from the industrial age to the present day, have resisted life-rattling technological change. For the Luddites it was smashing cotton mills, during the Swing Riots it was agricultural labourers destroying threshing machinery, in the postwar period it was infamous industrial battles, such as the Wapping dispute over printing technology, and more recently concern over the rise of the gig economy.

Predicting the future of work can be a fool’s game. The harsh reality is the economy evolves, paradigms shift and change is inevitable. Our older industries are heavily regulated, while our newer ones often nimbly exploit their under-regulation. Sadly, the human cost is too often forgotten; employment rights have been circumvented by classifying employees as “associates” or any number of bizarre terms, often as a means to avoid being responsible for holiday pay or other fundamental workplace rights. New does not always equal better.

Just as automation is not new, neither is the decreasing requirement for human labour to perform production tasks. What is new is the speed of change, the exponential ability of machine learning and the emergence of a new form of Fordism, one with tentacles touching not just manual jobs, but all echelons of employment.

Globalisation means we cannot stop the world and get off, but for many the world is moving at a frightening pace. Tech companies with turnovers comparable to small nations fill the strategic void left by poor governance.

But the situation does not mean we are powerless. Instead, it is about how we prepare for such rapid change. History has shown that when certain types of jobs disappear, others quickly emerge to fill the void. The jobs of the future require a change of mindset and need not seem like they have fallen from the pages of the dystopian novel. The jobs of today would baffle our great-grandparents. Embracing the future brings with it almost endless possibilities. Yet for technological change to be a positive occurrence, governments must operate within a strategic framework which puts people first; in essence policy must go hand-in-glove with conscience.

We know that most jobs are not for life, we also know that the skills you learn at school and beyond need to be supplemented and updated continually. Lifelong learning is key and incentivising employers to invest in their staff is one of the greatest challenges facing government.

Labour wants people to reap the benefits of technological change, rather than feel that they are being dragged along by it. It is why we have launched a consultation, “Our Digital Future”, to embed values in our collective response to both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

We should be empowering, not just supporting, people through life-long learning opportunities, investing in people alongside research and development and regulating the online space to make it a safer and more pleasant place to be. We need to stem the decade-long decline in in-work training budgets across the private sector, and foster a new culture of updating your skills as you progress through life, with a conscience-led policy of creating jobs that provide dignity to those that occupy them and benefit society as a whole.

During this pandemic Labour has prioritised retaining and creating jobs, but we fear the situation has only further accelerated changes for a society ill-equipped to respond. Our high streets have been devastated as online shopping has soared – bolstered by some of the biggest firms exploiting the unchecked tax advantages they hold, leaving the very fabric of many localised economies unravelling at the seams. Equally, just because a person’s job can be done from home does not mean that they are immune from these pressures, for in certain cases it could therefore be done from a different, cheaper home somewhere else in the world.

Two years ago the government announced a £1bn Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal, creating an Office for AI, but the significant investment in technology needs to be matched by an investment in people. The pandemic exposed the woeful lack of connectivity for millions of families, with recent research from the Children’s Commissioner pointing out that 9 per cent of families did not even have basic access to the internet or a digital device. A recent Microsoft report found that only 17 per cent of UK employees say they have recently taken part in any re-skilling efforts at their workplace, with just one in three workplaces reporting they feel prepared for a future of machine learning and AI.

Tellingly, the report highlighted that the UK faced a perplexing issue shared by few other nations, namely an overemphasis from firms on getting the latest technology in place, rather than improving the skills of those potentially using it. It does not take a churning supercomputer to work out where the government might want to focus its attention.

The technological world relentlessly spins on but, guided by a clearer strategy that brings people with it, underpinned by a conscience, such changes can improve the lives of all. Oh, and as for the story of sabots and sabotage I was once taught in a history classroom, it turns out it is an apocryphal tale. I just googled it. We are never too old to learn.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on The Future of Work: AI and Automation. To see the full supplement, click here.

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