Labour’s Tom Watson urges government to investigate impact of robots on jobs
Writing in The Guardian, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has called on the government to set up a royal commission to examine the impact of robots on the UK’s workforce.
“There is no minister for automation,” Watson writes. “No special cabinet committee has been set up to come up with solutions. There is no royal commission to look at the economic impact robots will have or the ethical dilemmas they pose. Where is the new institution that brings together trades unions, employers and government to establish how the time liberated and wealth created by robots is equitably shared?”
Watson brings up a recent study from Deloitte that claims the UK economy has lost 800,000 jobs since 2001, and that as many as 11 million UK jobs have a high chance of being automated over the coming decade.
“Today, sensors and actuators, together with advances in computation, memory and communication capability, are making every product smarter,” he continues. “The results will be positive for the vast mass of the global population, bringing knowledge, connections and consumer choice to billions. But they will be challenging for the millions in jobs that won’t exist in a decade.”
Watson’s article comes in the wake of reports that a new trial of driverless lorries will be announced in a speech by George Osborne next week.
The trial is predicted to see groups of up to ten computer-controlled lorries travelling in tight formations on a quiet stretch of the M6 near Carlisle, as part of a plan to speed up deliveries and cut congestion on UK roads. A Department for Transport spokesperson told the BBC: “New technology has the potential to bring major improvements to journeys and the UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of connected and driverless vehicles.
“We are planning trials of HGV platoons – which enable vehicles to move in a group so they use less fuel – and will be in a position to say more in due course.”
In a broader sense, Watson’s article brings the simmering unease about automation to the boil. He goes so far as to say that the current government “isn’t ideologically equipped to address the challenges we will face in this new world”. What’s needed, he claims, is “a new industrial strategy, fit for the second machine age and the epoch of drones, bots and artificial intelligence”.