People that write blogs or comment pieces often use this time of the year to roll out their "predictions" for the year ahead. Given what happened in 2016 I think we can all rest assured that any attempt to advocate accurate predictions is a fool's game, but I'm going to do it nonetheless.
Here at Future Labour, we focus our attention on the challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution to the future of Britain. That's obviously a big topic with a lot of unknowns, but it's becoming increasingly easier to do in certain parts of the British economy.
Britain is in a prime position to take the opportunities that come with the fourth industrial revolution. We have a vibrant and successful digital economy, with some of the best connectivity in Europe, and a legal and regulatory environment that makes it easier to undertake research and development in technology compared to other countries. This is why the British Government is investing in autonomous vehicles (or "driverless cars") and why lots of companies want to test out drone technologies here. But with these opportunities comes great challenges.
We've all seen how platforms have disrupted established markets (Uber and Airbnb being the obvious examples), but we're yet to see what continuous connectivity and the use of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") will bring. With 5G mobile connectivity expected from 2020/2021 and ever increasing private sector investment in AI, this new way of life will be coming to a town near you in a few years, not a few decades.
One of the TED lectures that I watched over the Christmas holidays put what is to come in a great way: where the first industrial revolution used the creation and distribution of power to enhance human strength, the fourth industrial revolution will use AI and the cloud to enhance human intelligence. Your car today might have the equivalent power of 250 horses from the pre-first industrial revolution period, but post fourth industrial revolution it'll also have the equivalent intelligence of 250 human minds.
And so to my prediction for the year ahead: 2017 will see the start of robots becoming mainstream, but Government will fail to do anything about the negative impacts on our lives. Let me set out why.
As we enter 2017, it's useful to look at our starting position. Amazon undertook its first delivery by drone in 2016, with a happy customer able to place an order and receive it at his home within 13 minutes. Just Eat tested its takeaway delivery robot, with another happy customer able to enter a PIN code into an insulated deliver unit on wheels to get his hands on his lunch. And Uber, Google and Tesla have all been actively testing their autonomous vehicles with increasing success.
But here in lays the problem. As consumers, we might all be quite happy about more convenient, cheaper and quicker deliver and transport times. But what about the van driver, the take away delivery cyclist or the taxi driver? They're unlikely to be happy about losing their jobs, and as an advocate of the theory behind The Spirit Level, I believe that we all suffer when others are suffering around us.
So what to do about it? Many political commentators have suggested that the historic votes for Brexit and for President-elect Trump in 2016 are symbols of a restless working class - flat lined wages, precarious employment, intergenerational inequality, an inherent distrust of the disruptive birth of the new economy. If this is true, and I think it partly is, the consequences of an unmitigated and head first dive into the fourth industrial revolution could render much more serious consequences around the world. Government must therefore intervene, although I predict that it won't - not least because the recent publication from Tory MP Alan Mak for the Free Enterprise Group (whilst showing welcome leadership on this issue in Parliament) clearly puts the economic productivity gains of AI automation above the consequences on people's lives.
But if Government is to intervene, the political challenge is how? The Brexiteers and Trumpians will start to move the recent Western political consensus away from globalisation towards nationalism and protectionist policy. But in a world increasingly connected based on drivers entirely outside of the political process, this can't surely be the right approach. And with analysis from the Centre for Economic and Business Research predicting the decline of the West - and the rise of India, Korea and Brazil - an inward facing populism will do nothing but aid our decline and influence around the world. Indeed, for Britain, maintaining our role as a centre of excellence for the digital economy is key to our future success.
The position of the Government therefore needs to be that of an interventionist state - not of the type of generations gone by, but of a strategic, risk sharing state - advocating the policies required for the future, instead of trying to apply the old rules to the new economy.
Government should be investing in upskilling the "at risk" workforces of today (which isn't just van drivers, by the way, but includes advanced manufacturing, accountancy and finance and the law too) whilst mitigating the inevitable job losses that will come from economic transition. It should use technology to transform the delivery of our public services and it should recognise that in a world where cyber warfare, global terrorism and mass migration continue to be problems, that only international cooperation will do. And we should start to re-design the role of the state, with state based insurance for gig-economy workers unable to get holiday or sick pay, and well-funded online access points in every community through established networks such as libraries, to name just two ideas.
Politicians and economists have been trying to find the solution to the lack of productivity in the British economy for years. Using AI and robots to increase our efficiency will be key, but the role of getting the balance right and mitigating the negative consequences rests with our Government. I therefore hope that the first part of my prediction comes true, but that the second was a fool's errand.
Darren Jones is the Director of Future Labour, a volunteer-powered platform focussed on the future of the British economy and the role the next Labour Government must play. He was Labour's prospective Member of Parliament for Bristol North West at the 2015 General Election.
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