Technology is needed to boost UK productivity, but not at the cost of employees

The Trade Union Congress calls for a debate about the future of employment as more roles become automated or replaced by artificial intelligence

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The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has called on the UK government to make sure workers are not left out by technology-driven productivity gains.

According to TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, it is essential the UK makes the most of  “the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies are offering”, especially with the UK failing to make productivity gains in the past decade.

“Robots and AI [artificial intelligence] could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need a debate about who benefits from this wealth, and how workers get a fair share,” she said.

The TUC has released Shaping our digital future, a discussion paper calling for a debate to assess the impact of technological changes such as AI, robotics and automation on the UK workforce.

In the paper, the TUC quotes figures from the Bank of England, estimating that 15 million jobs are at high risk of being automated. “Projections for wages in the wake of widespread technological change also suggest that the lowest skilled will lose out, and that income disparities could widen further,” the TUC warned.

“While over the long run technological change has enabled living standards to rise, in the last wave of change, the gains from growth have not been fairly shared. The share of national income going to labour has fallen over the past 30 years.”

Benefits of AI

The TUC believes that one of the main ways to manage workforce displacement is by protecting workforces and communities that are at greatest risk of seeing their jobs change.

It has suggested that there needs to be a debate about the length of working lives and about the intensity and demands placed on people when they are in work.

“We should look on the changes ahead as an opportunity to improve the lives of working people and their families. The government could use the revenue generated to reverse policies to raise the state pension age. Businesses could use productivity gains to improve the pay and conditions of workers,” said O’Grady.

One of the ways the TUC believes the UK government should react is to lower the state retirement age, so that people are encouraged to retire younger. The TUC quotes research from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) which suggests a 10% boost to GDP by 2030 as a result of AI.

“If we do see those benefits arrive, reversing increases in the state pension age and enabling more people to enjoy a decent retirement should be a priority. This would be one way to ensure that new technology enables a fairer share of the rewards from work, and to help those whose working lives may be disrupted by technological change,” the report said.

Replaced by a robot

However, the report warned that Britain’s current low levels of government and business investment, alongside cuts to higher and further education funding, mean that the UK risks falling behind in terms of advanced technology adoption.

The TUC’s concerns follow on from a number of surveys and reports this year warning about the risks of AI.

A survey in 2016 of 2,000 people in the UK by OpenText found that a significant number of people in the UK (42%) believe their job could be replaced by a robot by 2066. The survey reported that the younger generation of workers find it a more worrying prospect.

One in five (19%) 18 to 24 year olds said they sometimes or frequently worry about the prospect of their jobs being replaced by robot technology, compared to nearly three-quarters (73%) of 45 to 54 year olds that never worry about it, according to OpenText.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, while AI could replace certain jobs, others jobs could become more desirable because they cannot be performed by a machine.

Speaking at the CogX conference in July David Young, the former secretary state of employment, said AI will never truly replace the need for real people, which means society will need to reassess certain job functions in the care sector that have traditionally been considered low paid.

Young mirrored comments made by Stephen Hawkins in his 2016 article for the Guardian. In the article, Hawkins warned that AI would extend job destruction deep into the middle classes.

Some experts believe there is a need for government and society to consider whether the idea of a universal living wage or a basic income is workable, and to address the inequality arising from jobs being automated. Finland has trialled such a scheme since 2016.

But according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in May, the cost of providing a basic income at a level sufficient for individuals and families to live on – known as a Guaranteed Minimum Income level – would significantly exceed current spending on cash benefits in the UK.

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