Is the UK ready for AI-driven automation in the workplace?
During every major industrial revolution, there has been uncertainty over the role of humans in the world of work. Will machines replace humans completely in sectors such as manufacturing, and is this a good thing or an impending catastrophe? Does it mean an end to back-breaking labour and the start of a new age of leisure, or will it leave millions without the means to support themselves?
One thing is for sure: AI is the future. In fact, it’s already here. Industries such as warehousing and logistics already rely on it to automate processes, while decisions on mortgages and credit cards in the world of finance are made by algorithms. You only need to look to firms like Uber and the gig economy to see automation technology in action.
But there are very real concerns about whether the UK is prepared for AI, machine learning and automation to become the new normal in the world of work.
We don’t know how widely automation has already been rolled out
According to a panel of academics, politicians and business leaders brought together by the New Statesmen’s Spotlight, there isn’t very good data available at the moment about the extent of automation use in the UK.
Without a detailed and accurate picture, key policy decisions can’t be made. However, it is hoped that the next annual business survey will shed some light on the matter.
Are job losses inevitable?
The Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Stephen Timms, predicts that there will inevitably be jobs that are lost. Others will be changed dramatically. But there’s good news on the horizon – many experts believe that the rise of automation will be accompanied by the creation of exciting new roles that don’t exist right now.
How AI can enhance the world of work
Most industry figures and thought leaders are in agreement on how AI should be implemented. The ambition is to enhance the ways that humans work, principally by automating routine tasks to make time for highly skilled work.
But this raises a question about competitiveness. Some organisations can afford to be early adopters of automation technology, while others fall behind. The same applies to countries, meaning that in order to keep up - the UK needs to put AI technologies at the heart of government and education policy. Christopher Ford, government affairs head at DXC Technology, explained:
“The ability to leverage these new technologies is key to our geopolitical competitiveness.
“It is absolutely critical that we raise the level of understanding within government and the civil service about how to do things more efficiently and quickly… For me, the opportunity is the same as the risk: we don’t embrace it early enough. We don’t recognise that this is a technology of the future.”
A challenge for policymakers
Preparing the UK for an automated future is an enormous challenge for policymakers, requiring everything from a rethink of education policy to a raft of new regulations. The government faces a lack of expertise in how machine learning works, along with problems with ‘joined-up’ policymaking.
Ultimately, experts recommend prioritising data, skills and ethics in order to maximise job creation and soothe concerns over the rise of AI. And of course, there’s a very urgent need for investment.
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