Technology Could Lead Humanity to the Promised Land - Or Back to a Desperate Period of Neo-serfdom

27/07/2016 17:15 | Updated 28 July 2016

If you happened to be on the streets of Pittsburgh on 19 May 2016, you may well have witnessed a black car that looked akin to that driven by superheroes, driving itself. If you are a taxi driver this will be a cause for concern. It was an Uber.

Taxi drivers and their families are not the only ones who should be concerned. Late last year in Baden-Württemberg, a Mercedes lorry was driving itself at 50 miles per hour, along a busy section of motorway. There are 600,000 HGV registered licensed drivers in the UK, 242,200 licensed taxi and private hire vehicles and around 1.8 million people in the expanded logistics workforce. Such ground breaking technologies are just the tip of the iceberg.

The World Economic Forum predicts more than seven million jobs in the world's largest economies will be threatened in the next few years by advances such as robotics and 3D printing.

In the 1970s and 80s, mainframe computers and robots had a huge impact. Since then our manufacturing workforce has fallen by 60 per cent. For those made redundant, this technology was a curse. For the wider economy, it was a blessing. Increased productivity has led to total manufacturing output today being 6 per cent higher over the same period.

Today automation and artificial intelligence are progressing at a speed, scale and force unlike anything we have experienced before. Sooner or later the challenge of human redundancy will have to be reckoned with.

Machines, like Google's DeepMind, are now capable of cognitive functions. Machine learning is likely to be the primary catalyst behind a surge of applications in automation and robotics and a nearly limitless number of specialised applications. When a robot can read a set of accounts, analyse a million emails or phone records, write annual reports, why employ a lawyer, researcher or accountant?

In contrast, the sharing economy may seem quaint by comparison but it is also another significant threat to jobs. Airbnb, for example, now dwarfs even the largest hotel chains but still has under a thousand employees compared with Hilton's 164,000.

Policy needs to meet this challenge head on. Not just the challenge of the loss of jobs but also the fact that the benefits from this tech-driven productivity surge keep accruing to an ever smaller group.

With its perennial trade and budget deficits the UK already has structural issues to contend with in addition to the technological challenge. Fortunately, it also has some big advantages. We have a great science base, a great technological base, a great creative base and a great entrepreneurial base. But just as businesses need to adapt, our government must too.

Firstly, as new jobs replace old jobs, we must equip people with the skills to adapt. Education should be collaborative, research-based, and self-directed; it should relate to real world challenges and have input from employers and trade bodies.

Secondly, entrepreneurialism must be culturally engrained across our whole society and not just at private schools. Unless we encourage more start-ups and new businesses able to work with new technologies, the UK will face certain comparative decline.

Thirdly, governments are going to need new tools, new laws and new ideas to adequately tax the owners of technology. It is not just, or sustainable, for corporate profits to have an ever increasing share of GDP whilst real wages flatline, despite huge gains in economic output. Without adequate tax on the owners of technology and proper investment in education and skills, we are heading back to the world of barons and serfs.

Fourthly, we should develop policies to encourage businesses to stay British. Despite our vibrant start up scene many of the UK's most exciting companies never make it to global status, often because they get acquired by US firms before they get there. British companies that receive state support should guarantee that their company headquarters will remain in the UK, they will pay corporate tax in the UK, their company founders will stay tax domiciled in the UK and their investors will pay tax on gains in the UK.

Finally, embarking on a new industrial policy without a full partnership with trade unions would be folly. For any renaissance in the British economy we are going to need healthy and vibrant trade unions, respected by business with a sense of shared mission, and partnership. To meet this challenge, unions must modernize. Workers today need strong, representative, forward-thinking, pragmatic, unions. Trade unions that see the dangers and opportunities of this digital revolution. In return government should roll back much of the egregious anti-union legislation that has accumulated over the past decades.

The technological changes that we are witnessing are potentially heading for a collision with society as we know it. Not preparing our country adequately will lead society to a very harsh destination.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Technology can lead humanity to the promised land. Less working hours, less disease, improved human efficiency, smarter learning and greater understanding and communication. But unmanaged it could also lead us back to a desperate period of neo-serfdom.

This blog is based on a chapter Simon Franks wrote for the book Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, published this week. Changing Work is the first publication from The Changing Work Centre, an initiative from the Fabian Society and Community which is chaired by Yvette Cooper MP


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