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UK AI ambitions “undermined” by digital inaction on digital exclusion

Lack of access to broadband and a skills gap is costing the economy billions every year, says a House of Lords report.

By Sophia Waterfield

The government’s ambitions to make the UK a technology superpower are being undermined by high levels of digital exclusion, a House of Lords report has found.

Overall, digital skills shortages cost the economy up to £63bn a year, the report says.

Released today, the report covers the findings from the Lords’ ‘Digital exclusion and the cost of living’ inquiry, which was conducted by the upper chamber’s Communications and Digital Committee. The inquiry was launched in February to find out how the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis had impacted the digital divide – the gap between those who do and don’t have access to digital technologies or products.

The committee said that the scale of the problem was a “direct consequence of political lethargy” and that the government didn’t have a “credible plan” to tackle digital exclusion. This is at odds with the current administration’s pledges to boost economic growth and to make the UK recognised as a technology superpower by 2030.

The committee said in its report that the failure to take decisive action on digital exclusion by the government is costing the UK economy £63bn a year, impacting economic growth, public health and levelling up. They have urgently called for a new digital inclusion strategy – the last one was published nearly a decade ago – and for investment in basic digital skills and boosting digital inclusion hubs. They also said that the government had to get a handle on the use of predictive machine learning tools in public services to ensure those who are digitally excluded are not further marginalised by biased datasets.

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As part of its report, the committee flagged concerning numbers around the extent of the digital divide in the UK, especially when it comes to digital skills.

It found that four million people are still unable to complete a single basic digital task to get online, with seven million households not having access to broadband or mobile internet access. This has resulted in the loss of billions from the economy each year and the committee predicts that the five million in the workforce will be acutely under-skilled by 2030.

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The report also says that 90% of jobs are only advertised online, resulting in many people missing out on opportunities if they do not have access to the internet.

But the digital divide also impacts businesses, with jobs being unfilled. techUK’s Digital Economy Monitor report found that 57% of UK IT firms believed the digital talent shortage was the biggest barrier for their companies. Writing for Tech Monitor in November, Sheila Flavell, president of tech trade organisation techUK, said: “This is creating a vicious circle, whereby there are fewer people to do the jobs we desperately need to keep innovating. In time, this will slow down the pace of innovation, constricting the growth of our economy while we face a cost-of-living crisis.”

The committee also warned that the government should not assume digital exclusion will be solved as older generations leave the workforce. Baroness Stowell of Beeston, chair of the committee, said that digital exclusion was a “moving target” and that due to the developments in technology, people needed to be confident using IT at work and at home.

“We can’t assume younger people are digital natives who won’t need to develop new skills,” she warned. “We need to ensure everyone and all age groups have the digital skills they need to operate and the opportunities to keep developing those skills as technologies change.”

Dr Charles Levinson, medical director of medical platform Doctorcall, told Tech Monitor that digital exclusion was a “serious issue” for the healthcare industry and said that those in government might not understand the implications on vulnerable and elderly members of society who are digitally excluded.

“We cannot assume that all have the capabilities and knowledge to work the latest smartphone,” he said. “Telemedicine has a role in healthcare […] but we must always be aware of its limitations and not allow people to feel left behind – offering options and support to those who are not as tech-savvy.”

Levinson warns that the government cannot overlook this sizeable percentage of society when planning health policy, especially when this group is “disproportionately in need of care.”

This is something the committee’s report found, warning that public and private sector organisations using machine learning in their products and services would further disadvantage digitally-excluded groups. They were also concerned that these people would be “poorly represented” in datasets and would be more likely to ace further marginalisation as a result.

The report also calls on the government to create a new unit that would tackle digital exclusion, pushing for the Prime Minister’s Office to “take a direct interest” in a revised strategy.

Speaking on the government’s lack of action, Baroness Stowell said: “The government has bold ambitions to make the UK a technology superpower and centre of AI development, but we can’t deliver an exciting digital future when five million workers are under-skilled in digital.”

She said that while tackling digital exclusion isn’t “as sexy as searching for the next tech unicorn”, the government couldn’t expect the UK to compete as a global player without “getting the basics right.”

This was all down to “a distinct lack of leadership” in the government to take on digital exclusion, the report found, and Stowell says that it needed to “get a grip” on the situation now. As part of its recommendations, the committee said that it had “no confidence” in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) in making digital exclusion a priority in policy-making and that there were no formal structures in place for coordinating policy, updating targets or reviewing progress at either an official or ministerial level.

It has recommended that DSIT establish a “cross-government digital exclusion unit” with a mandate for coordinating external stakeholders and working across departments to embed digital exclusion in priority policy areas. These include economic growth, levelling up, public health, education and skills and employment and welfare.

Elizabeth Anderson, interim CEO of the Digital Poverty Alliance, said her organisation is encouraged by the report’s findings, but that it must result in tangible action. The non-profit gave evidence in the inquiry calling for a government digital inclusion strategy and support for those without essential digital skills.

“We live in a digital economy where participation in basic daily activities, that many of us take for granted, requires access to or skills relating to technology,” Anderson said. “For the UK to achieve their goal of becoming a tech and science superpower, more must be done to support those who lack access, which will not only provide them with increased opportunities but will help support the growth of our economy.”

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age. Steps we are taking include putting essential digital skills on an equal footing in the adult education system alongside English and maths.

“To boost access, we have worked closely with Ofcom and the industry to bring a range of social broadband and mobile tariffs, available across 99% of the UK and starting from as low as £10 per month, and our £5bn Project Gigabit has already resulted in 76% of the UK being covered by gigabit broadband, up from just 6% at the start of 2019.”

This piece was originally published by TechMonitor on 29 June.