AI and automation - the real political cost

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton October 16, 2017
Chris Middleton welcomes a new report revealing how each political constituency in the UK will be hit by AI, assessing the impact on jobs.

Headlines shout about killer robots, conferences hail the rise of AI, reports pile up on boardroom desks, and politicians talk about automation, but as yet no one has formulated an adequate policy response to maximising the opportunities and minimising the risks of these technologies – least of all the government’s own AI report.

So how to force MPs to abandon the rhetoric and engage with AI more urgently? One think tank has the answer: produce a heat-map of UK automation and show politicians how their own constituencies may be affected by it.

The new report, The Impact of AI on UK Constituencies – Where Will Automation Hit Hardest? has been produced by Future Advocacy, a think tank that pushes for smart policy-making for the new industrial age.

Future Advocacy sees AI as the key that will unlock the mysteries of data and usher in the next wave of automation. The think tank has applied 2017 PwC research data that gauges the impact on different sectors to the local jobs market in each constituency of the UK: a simple but effective strategy.

The resulting heat-map reveals that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s Hayes and Harlington constituency will by the hardest hit by automation, with nearly 40 per cent of jobs at risk by 2030. Its high concentration of transport and storage jobs make it most susceptible to the technologies. (The long-term impact of driverless vehicles could be massive in the years ahead: in the US, for example, truck driving is the most common job in 29 out of 50 states.)

Next on the list are two Conservative seats, Crawley (37.8 per cent of jobs at risk) and North Warwickshire (37.1 per cent), followed by two Labour heartlands, Alyn and Deeside (36.8 per cent) and Brentford and Isleworth (36.8 per cent): a top five in which well over one-third of jobs could be affected or replaced by machine intelligence.

The constituencies of leading political figures are very much in the frame, says the report. Among these are Maidenhead, held by Prime Minister Theresa May (28.8 per cent of jobs at risk); Twickenham, held by LibDem leader Sir Vince Cable (27.2 per cent of jobs); and Islington North, held by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (26.2 per cent of jobs).

While Corbyn’s constituency is a long way behind May’s and Cable’s in the number of jobs at risk from automation, the figures still represent well over a quarter of jobs in the area, even though 602 other constituencies face a higher risk of unemployment. Clearly, AI and automation show no respect for political boundaries.

Heat Map
The Impact of AI on UK Constituencies - A Heat Map

The big picture

Zoom out from local politics to look at the UK as a whole, and a stark picture emerges: the regions that are likely to be hardest hit by automation are the Midlands and the North of England, where jobs in transport, manufacturing, and warehousing are often concentrated. As a result, ‘one-size fits all’ policies won’t work in this fast-emerging world, says Future Advocacy:

Our analysis suggests that the unequal geographical distribution of the impact of automation deserves immediate attention by government, particularly as it is regions that have previously suffered the effects of industrial decline that are likely to be worst hit.

It is important that the government learns the lessons that the recent history of manufacturing, mining, and similar industries in the UK have taught us. The decline of these industries in parts of the UK towards the end of the last century may have been inevitable, but it is unarguable that the transition to new job types and different industries in these areas could have been managed better.

The consequences of the historic decline of industries such as manufacturing and coal mining in these regions have been extensively studied, and include high rates of unemployment, high prevalence of illnesses such as depression and drug/alcohol abuse, and depopulation. It is concerning that the areas that have already suffered so much from industrial decline could be hardest hit yet again.

Even more worryingly, the speed at which job displacement to automation could potentially occur is worth highlighting. For example, while it took several decades for the 19,000 mining jobs in the whole of Warwickshire to be lost, our analysis suggests that around 20,500 jobs (or 37.1% of the total number of jobs in 2015) in North Warwickshire could be displaced by the early 2030s. The impact on individuals, families, and whole communities will be profound.

Lower-risk constituencies tend to be those that offer more opportunities in sectors such as education and health, says Future Advocacy – confirming findings published in the RSA’s recent Age of Automation report, which noted that jobs in hospitality, leisure, medicine, healthcare, and education are most resistant to automation, because they rely most on human relationships and empathy.

The other side of the coin

Yet automation isn’t a zero sum game, as the report acknowledges. Automation may sweep aside many routine, low-skilled tasks, but it will also create new types of job. In the long term, the economic growth spurred by these new technologies may mean that the employment impact is neutral, but long before then skills, education, and training will be the real battlegrounds as people fight to retain their place in society.

The report says:

For those with just GCSE-level education or lower, the estimated potential risk of automation is as high as 46 per cent in the UK, but this falls to only around 12 per cent for those with undergraduate degrees or higher. Similarly, men may be at higher risk of job displacement by automation than women.

The sectors with the highest estimated risk of automation are characterised by relatively high proportions of male employees and of workers with low educational attainment.

The risk of rising economic disparity, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, is real, says the report. Earlier this year, right wing think tank Reform suggested that a quarter of a million jobs could be swept out of the UK public sector alone, leaving teachers, doctors, nurses and care workers to compete via reverse auction for ad hoc work – a scenario that Reform suggested would be a good thing.

To avoid an AI-enabled, ideological field day, Future Advocacy says that the government should conduct research into alternative income and taxation models that favour a fairer distribution of wealth:

This could include undertaking well-designed trials of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) along the lines of those currently underway in Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, and Canada. The government’s fiscal and welfare policies must be updated to ensure that wealth is not increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few commercial entities who own robots and other automated technologies.

Ultimately, we support a taxation model that results in a fairer distribution of the wealth that these technologies will create.

Checks and balances

The need for an economic counterbalance to the rise of the machines seems overwhelming, as society prepares itself for a more skilled, creative, flexible, and/or portfolio-based future. But whether a Conservative government would ever consider a UBI strategy must be in doubt: it’s hard to imagine right-wing newspapers ever getting behind the idea.

So how else should the British government engage with automation today, so that it can plan for a better, fairer, and more equal future? Future Advocacy says that it should:

  • Commission and support research to assess which employees are most at risk of job displacement, including how impacts will differ by employment sector, region, age, gender, educational attainment, and socio-economic group.
  • Draft a White Paper on adapting the education system to lifelong learning and maximising the opportunities of AI – a recommendation also made by techUK in its 2017 manifesto for digital renewal, by the RSA in its automation report, and by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech to the 2017 Labour conference.

Such a White Paper shouldn’t restrict itself to extolling the importance of STEM and coding skills, adds Future Advocacy, but also make detailed proposals to future-proof training in creative and interpersonal skills. More, it should support initiatives that encourage underrepresented groups to pursue AI and robotics training, including women and ethnic minorities.

  • Make the AI opportunity a central pillar of the UK’s Industrial strategy and of the trade deals that the UK negotiates post-Brexit – a recommendation also made by techUK.
  • Ensure that the migration policy in place post-Brexit will still allow UK-based companies and universities to attract the best AI and robotics talent from all over the world.
  • Develop smart, targeted strategies to address future job displacement.

The report adds:

The importance of targeting these interventions at those most at risk cannot be overemphasised.

My take

Together, this report, the RSA’s Age of Automation document, and techUK’s election-themed manifesto for digital renewal are better assessments of the new world of work than the government’s much-feted AI report, published on Sunday while ministers were, presumably, kneeling to pray that Brexit works.

That the government should look at the figures is unarguable: it needs to stop obsessing about what sort of society it doesn’t want (one overseen by Europe) and start thinking about what kind of economy it wants to create in the long term: a future in which it will need to be ambitious, entrepreneurial, and prepared to take risks.

If everyone in society is to benefit from the new world of work – which was the subtext of Brexit – then Whitehall needs to give this report urgent consideration.

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