My Lords, as we move on to the dinner hour debate, it might help noble Lords to know that the time available has been extended to 90 minutes. Therefore, the advisory speaking time has been extended to six minutes.
My Lords, in 1589 the inventor William Lee applied for a patent on a new knitting machine that could quickly produce far higher quality stockings than could be made by hand. Elizabeth I denied him his patent. In doing so she said:
“Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”.
Does my noble friend the Minister have any record of the advice given by her department to the monarch in this case? We know that not long after that, Britain became a world leader in textiles, despite the Luddites and their alleged destruction of the machinery they thought was threatening their jobs These concerns have never subsided. In the 1930s, many predicted an endless depression as jobs were lost to machines. In the 1970s, unions were concerned about mass unemployment as factories became more efficient.
So concerns about the impact of technology on jobs are by no means a new thing, and, as in the 16th century, whenever we hear about the impact of technology on the jobs market these days, it is almost always negative. The headlines are terrifying: robots will take your job and industry will cull thousands of employees to make way for cheaper machines. It is straightforward to show how many jobs a machine can take away from humans. The minus side of the ledger is quite clear—but what about the plus side? That is much harder to measure, which perhaps underpins the negativity of the current debate. It is also much harder for journalists to write about the plus side.
But some excellent analysis has been produced by economists at Deloitte that shows that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed in the last 144 years. That was the key finding from report that moved me to table this debate: Technology and People: The Great Job-creating Machine. I am grateful to the team who produced the report as, along with several other noble Lords, I have met with them several times to discuss this issue in more depth.
As the economists at Deloitte found, new technology simply changes the types of jobs that people do. Agriculture is a key example. In 1871 it employed 6.6% of the workforce in England and Wales. Today it employs just 0.2% of the workforce, which is a decline of a massive 95%. It is good that we do not have as many people working in this sector, and we produce more food as a result of technology changes.
In general terms, technological innovation has taken people out of manual work: jobs that decades and centuries ago required muscle power. So while employment in agriculture has declined, it has grown in other areas. Let us take nursing and care. Just 1.1% of the workforce was employed in the caring professions in 1871, while in 2011 these professions employed almost a quarter of the England and Wales workforce. That is a huge leap, indicating that as we need less heavy lifting, we can redirect efforts to other areas.
Technology has also boosted employment in knowledge-intensive sectors. Again, since we do not have to engage in intense physical activity to produce food, energy and goods, we can instead engage in jobs that require more brainpower. That explains why employment has grown in medicine and professional services. And despite the invention of calculators and computers, the number of accountants in England and Wales has grown from around 10,000 in 1871 to 216,000 now. Indeed, it has been reported that the UK has more accountants than the rest of the EU combined. This indicates that even when a new technology seemingly threatens a job, it does not necessarily play out as the pessimists think it will—and, given the Conservatives’ strong record on jobs over the last two Parliaments, we have even more reason to be optimistic.
I spent some of the days of the Easter Recess in Japan, where the level of service is magnificent. I was particularly intrigued by the hotel I stayed in. Some of the reception desks were normal—high tops, with the receptionists standing to talk to guests. Others had 1ow desks—in which case the receptionist had been trained to leap to her feet whenever a guest approached. A wonderful article in “Wired” magazine describes in detail a new hotel near Tokyo Disneyland, in which most of the receptionists—and indeed other staff—are automatons. The hotelier clearly believes that the vast majority of requests can be predicted and dealt with by a robot. The fact that the robot is dressed, if that is the right word, as a velociraptor in a pinafore and a hat either makes the point that the level of this technology is emerging from the evolutionary swamp or reflects the weird sense of fun of the Japanese designers. What is the impact of automated receptionists? It has now created the need for more staff, not fewer. Perhaps there is one fewer receptionist, but there are more engineers, programmers—and possibly psychiatrists to help the bemused patrons. It is not of course the hotelier’s objective to create other jobs elsewhere, but that is of course the great thing about innovation.
If we think about the receptionists in Japan, their training should be in how to solve new problems, not just about how to stand and smile at the customers: how to think, not just how to behave. Perhaps the reptilian robotic receptionist is an extreme example of a general trend that many jobs are a mixture of drudgery and interest, and the truth is that many people have no real challenge in their jobs. Many noble Lords have earned their living in manual labour at some stage in the past. As a 17 year-old, I was an ineptly skilled bricklayer, hating the cold rain in Scotland in January and hoping for a better job. I am rather glad that I got one.
Noble Lords will know that a repetitive job is rarely fulfilling, as they are used to dealing with challenges. It cannot be the summit of human achievement to assemble widgets, working like Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”, driven by an ever-accelerating production line. The people doing a task repetitively may actually be dreaming about different mental problems: how to motivate their teenagers or what they would do if they won the lottery. We should be encouraging people to use their brainpower rather than lose it. Not using reasoning is very bad for the health of human beings.
Jobs that are examined on television series are the ones that have drama and factors out of the control of the individual. The brave fishermen catching crabs in “The Deadliest Catch” or the brave souls in “Ice Road Truckers” are filmed not because they are photogenic but because they are mostly triumphant over high odds. There is a certain romance in these jobs which we can watch from afar in a warm living-room. The cold and the wet, and the danger that could kill them, is real, but it is also dramatised to allow people to enjoy the programme in comfort that little bit more—although perhaps the biggest danger is most noticeable to the poor cameraman on the fishing boat for the first time rather than to the fishermen themselves. They may be our modern working heroes: the last ones to have their jobs automated because their environment is so uncontrolled. Perhaps soon we shall have autonomous fishing vehicles trundling around the sea-floor, meaning that the humans who now do this job will be able to do something safer.
The political enthusiasm for the coal miners belied the fact that it was a dirty, dangerous profession. In 2013, there were 260,000 deaths worldwide from pneumoconiosis, or black lung, most of which was the result of exposure to particles while deep mining. More than £4 billion has been paid in compensation to miners for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and vibration white finger. So is it a tragedy that a deep mine shuts or is it a triumph that we no longer produce crippled and chronically diseased working men? History has shown us a stream of jobs that have disappeared, from lamplighters to village blacksmiths, from threshers to coal hauliers, and most of these jobs were dangerous and uncomfortable.
The BBC website hosts a search tool where you type in your job and it tells you the extent to which it is at risk from automation. The jobs most at risk are repetitive, clerical and administrative. Perhaps if our new laws have too many clauses, legislators are doomed to be replaced by robots as well.
If there is anything we can do to prepare ourselves for the rise of the robots, it is to ensure that we have an education system that is teaching the right skills, but one that is also flexible and differentiated. The cleverest should be able to take advantage of their cleverness in whatever field they may be, rather than be consumed by the blob. After all, William Lee, the inventor of that knitting machine rejected by the Elizabeth I, attended Cambridge on a form of scholarship. His cleverness was recognised and nurtured in the education system, even though the Queen was not impressed. It is great education that can solve the problems raised by technology.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on securing this debate and introducing it so elegantly. We can all swap stories, since we have more time than we thought, about our jobs as students. I used to work as a house painter, up the top of a ladder, and bloomin’ dangerous it was—too scary for me, so I had to give it up. It fits the narrative because now I have things that fix the ladder at the bottom, which makes it a lot safer than it was in my day.
The report in question is a useful counterblast, as the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, said, to those who say in some simplistic way, “The robots are coming for our jobs”. But, unlike the noble Lord, I have a range of reservations about it and questions to raise. Primarily, I have three questions.
First, I think it is a mistake to speak generically of technology as though it were all the same from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present day. When we discuss the issues currently we are talking primarily of the digital revolution, which is a great wave of change washing across the globe, driven by the internet, supercomputers and robotics. The digital revolution has not yet transformed the world as profoundly as the original industrial revolution did, but it is moving far, far faster and is much more immediately global than was ever the case before.
A good example, among many, is the rise of Uber, which was founded only in 2009. It is now capitalised at $65 billion. I studied technology through history as an academic. There has never been such a pace of change, and it is immediately global. The novelty of this has to be appreciated and we have to attempt to grasp it.
Secondly, the authors say confidently that machines,
“seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years”.
The noble Lord seemed to accept that statement.
It may be the case, but I think it is more accurate to say that, given this enormous speed of innovation and change across the world, we live in a kind of “don’t know” world precisely because of the pace and scope of change. We can read, for example, Richard and Daniel Susskind’s The Future of the Professions or Eric Topol’s The Patient Will See You Now. It is an interesting reversal. You go to the doctor, wait for five hours and then they say, “The doctor will see you now”. Eric Topol foresees a transformation in medicine where patients are empowered—not down the line but in the near future.
Anyone who reads these and many similar works must recognise that we are in new territory and that we are still exploring the territory. It offers a huge and, to me, potentially disturbing mix of opportunities and risks—with, as yet, imponderable consequences. We simply do not know whether the theorems advocated in the report will hold over the next 20 or 30 years, although some aspects of them may do.
Thirdly, the authors’ main thesis is that machines reduce costs, thereby freeing people to expand consumer spending, thus creating new jobs. Yet endless consumption does not seem the way forward for a world already running out of key resources and where conservation has to be a key value. So this theorem might also run up against other constraints.
At this point in our history, we have to be adventurous in our thinking because a range of possible futures confronts us. As I said, at this point we have no way of knowing which of them will turn out to be reality. The potential consequences for public policy seem to me quite huge. The level of disruption in the job market is likely to be higher and much more sudden than at any previous period. Whole industries might disappear overnight. Whole industries have disappeared overnight—again, this is more or less without precedent. Therefore, skills training will need to be highly flexible, creative and innovative.
The implications for welfare are also quite profound. It is no accident that basic income has surfaced as a theme in the thinking of many countries across the world. Not just work but education, medicine, social care and many other areas are likely to be transformed in their very nature by the digital revolution. We must track these changes in a continuous way and confront an open future, not one where we can simply apply a theorem derived from the past.
I draw your Lordships’ attention to my interest in GKN, which is a technology and engineering company. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I will not be regaling them with tales of my holiday job in a chocolate factory, except to say that it is nowhere near as good as it sounds.
We should welcome this report and the opportunity to have this discussion, as we have too few like it in this place. It is helpful to start from a positive rather than a negative narrative. We should all accept that fantastic opportunities present themselves and that these will be created by technology.
The title of the report includes the words “Technology and People”, and it is the people bit on which I want to dwell a little because it is the people of this country who will make this happen and who will be affected by it. The report, rightly, shies away from trying to draw a picture of what the future looks like, but works hard at trying to describe the type of people who will benefit in this world. It very clearly shows, as the first speaker said, how routine work has already been massively curtailed and reduced. It places a big onus on the education system of the future to foster and create people who are capable of what it rather dryly refers to as “cognitive, non-routine tasks”. Within that, there is tremendous variation, but for the future to be positive in this country the majority of the people who live here have to be capable of embracing that cognitive, non-routine future. I think the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, made that point; the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, certainly did.
How good are we at this today? We heard a little about accountants, so I thought we might talk a little about engineers and engineering instead. I sit on the Royal Academy of Engineering’s engineering talent project. This initiative is looking very seriously at how we can generate sufficient engineers over the near, medium and long term to address this country’s needs. It is a tremendously difficult and pressing task that we have in front of us. At the current rate we will have a massive shortfall of the engineers we need.
Analysis of the situation shows great profligacy when it comes to nurturing future engineering students and practitioners through our schools. We have what the task force called a “leaky pipeline”. If noble Lords look at the traditional pathway to engineering—of course, there are a number of other pathways—and start with 100 girls or 100 boys, only 0.2 of the girls or 1.6 of the boys will make it to an engineering job. That is a tremendously leaky pipeline. It is not that they are incapable of doing the subjects. Many of them, if not most, are capable at the start, but by the time they come through they have dwindled from 100 to, in the case of girls, 0.2. Bear in mind the current situation, where, for every new engineer recruited, one and a half retire. That gives noble Lords a measure of the problem.
This is one example where we are failing to impart the sort of skills that we need for this cognitive, non-routine future. It is important because engineering’s problems are not atypical of the sort of skills and people who will be needed to embrace the future we see in this report. Of course, it is not straightforward and it requires a range of responses. It would be useful to hear what the Minister believes our response as a nation should be to this challenge. Clearly, looking at education, we have to find a way to value science and science teachers, to increase their numbers and empower them to teach these subjects. We have to raise the status of unfashionable subjects, such as physics, which is gradually emerging. Mathematics has also become more popular than it was, but there is still a long way to go to encourage schools sometimes to allow their pupils to take these exams, because there is a perception that the results may not be so good and their school may be marked down in league tables. That is something where the Government can look at how Ofsted deals with schools that are embracing bringing young people through with these kinds of subjects, which are often harder to get the highest grades for.
We need to build bridges for people. The pathway to either a STEM or an arts, non-STEM career diverges very early in life. It is time that young people—and, indeed, older people through their lives—have the opportunity and flexibility to cross back into the STEM arena and express themselves in that way.
We need action so that the UK can positively embrace this future and we need that action to centre around people and their skills. I look forward to hearing how we can do that.
My Lords, the big economic and social question that should concern us is surely this: will robotics and AI be like earlier technologies addressed by Deloitte and create as many jobs as they destroy, or might it really be different next time? Robots have already replaced people in much of manufacturing, but in coming decades they will take over not just manual work—indeed, jobs such as plumbing and gardening will be among the hardest to automate—but routine legal and accountancy work, medical diagnostics and even surgery.
DeepMind, a small London company now hoovered up by Google, hit headlines recently because its computer beat the world champion in the Chinese game go. This was a breakthrough in so-called “generalised machine learning” because, unlike IBM’s earlier chess-playing computer, the go-playing machine was not programmed by experts. It taught itself by analysing lots of games and playing against itself.
Computers learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by crunching through millions of images—not the way babies learn. Computers learn to translate by reading millions of pages of, for example, multilingual EU documents—they never get bored. But advances are patchy. Robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chess-board. They cannot tie your shoe-laces or cut your toe-nails. But sensor technology, speech recognition and so forth are advancing apace. The driverless car is closer to reality.
Incidentally, the driverless car raises questions of safety and how to cope with emergencies. For instance, if an obstruction suddenly appears on a crowded highway, can Google’s driverless car discriminate whether it is a paper bag, a dog or a child? The likely answer is that its judgment will never be perfect, but it will be better than the average driver. Machine errors will occur, but not as often as human error. But when accidents do occur they will create a legal minefield—who should be held responsible: the driver, the owner or the designer?
According to the Deloitte report, the jobs that have multiplied most since the 1990s are socially valuable but poorly paid—nursing auxiliaries, teaching assistants and care workers. This trend will continue. The money “earned” by robots could generate burgeoning wealth for an elite, but sustaining a harmonious society will require massive redistribution to guarantee everyone a “living wage”, and to expand and upgrade public service employment where the human element is crucial for our quality of life and is now undervalued—carers for young and old, custodians, gardeners in public parks and so on.
I will indulge myself briefly by looking further ahead. Today’s smartphones would have seemed magic just 20 years ago, so looking towards mid-century we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to what may now seem science fiction. Some AI evangelists talk about an intelligence explosion when machines will achieve human capabilities and will then go on themselves to create even more intelligent machines. Just as a nuclear explosion is easier to create than to control, maybe there is a worry that an intelligence explosion would be harder to control, even if it could be developed.
What if a machine developed a mind of its own? Would it stay docile or might it “go rogue”? Could it infiltrate the internet and the internet of things and manipulate the external world? This may seem science fiction, but some AI pundits think that the field already needs guidelines for responsible innovation, just as biotech does, to ensure that we can cope with or prevent these obvious downsides. Others regard these concerns as premature and think that it will be several decades before artificial intelligence becomes more of a worry than real stupidity.
But the disagreements are basically about timescales—the rate, not the direction, of travel. Few doubt that machines will surpass more and more of our distinctive capabilities or enhance them via cyborg technology. The jury is out on whether they will be idiots savant or develop truly versatile intelligences. Either way, coping with their societal consequences will become ever more challenging than it already is. It therefore needs to be high on our agenda. That is why I hugely welcome this debate.
Earlier this week, I saw a headline over an article by some transport guru in a national newspaper, “Driverless cars will not catch on”. That incited the punter in me to think that there must be an investment opportunity here. Where can I invest in the companies that will put the stuff into these driverless cars? After all, not many decades ago there were people saying on the record in the Economist and other great journals that the internet probably would not catch on too much.
It is much better to listen to the thoughtful words of the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, on driverless cars and what they might produce in terms of a minefield in legal regulation. It is always better to listen to people who know their stuff, who have made stuff and think about stuff—just as my noble friend who opened this debate said in his notable speech. He is a deep thinker. As it happens, I think about him every day in my office at work because a couple of decades ago he gave me for my desk what is called in the trade a “business courtesy”—a memento of no value at all. It is a heavy, stainless steel apple produced by the lost wax process in one of his Redditch foundries, made by some of his people in a demonstration that manufacturing with leftovers can be fun. I think every day of my noble friend Lord Borwick when I go into my office and he made me think a lot in what he said this evening.
My noble friend used the report by Deloitte on this subject as a convenient peg on which to hang his provocative thoughts. At nine pages, the report is not exactly a PhD thesis. It restates the conventional wisdom—there is nothing wrong with conventional wisdom where it is correct—that since 1871, every time some new invention or process has appeared, there is normally turmoil. People are fearful for their jobs, there are calls for regulation or to stop it happening—as in Queen Elizabeth I’s time—but then everything always settles down. The one-time threat turns out generally to be a most beneficial job creator. It is just like in our experience when we lower the top rate of taxation: the tax take for the Treasury automatically, in a regulated way, produces more money for the Treasury to spend on those people who need help. These things have been the case every time since way before 1871, and always will be in future.
When I first looked at the report online, a sidebar popped up on the Deloitte site trying to recruit new people, including readers of the report, to join its ranks. “Never too late,” I thought. “Always look at a new challenge. Chartered accountancy? It’s a thought”. So I went down the recruiting list. Deloitte lists its seven areas of expertise of which it is proud—in rank order, I guess. The first is giving tax advice. Going down through the list, the last is technology. I am sure that its advice on technology is excellent. However, while it used to be those in blue-collar trades, as they were then called, who were at the forefront of uncomfortable change—losing their jobs and having to reskill—in future decades it will be more and more the white collars who see disruption and replacement by the sort of automation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and others. That automation will go into areas such as legal work and, dare I say it, accountancy. Some people listening will realise that we have in the United Kingdom almost as many accountants as the whole of the rest of the other nations of the European Union put together. This sort of movement into these areas may well be a very beneficial piece of economic advance and disruption in the employment landscape.
It will also be less and less the case of new machines and technologies—those driverless cars and all the rest of it—but more of the de facto rebooting of human beings. Take apps, as have been referred to. Their use has created enormous wealth and new jobs. They have destroyed lots of other jobs, too. People used to be in call centres giving advice. They are not asked for that any more because apps get people the advice they want on where to go or shop, or how to get a restaurant booking. That has indeed destroyed jobs but it has also created an enormous amount of new growth. Only a year ago, text-based, artificial intelligence-driven chatbots were thought to be pure futurology, just like those driverless cars and the internet. Yet we now have this artificial intelligence-driven mechanism booking trains, getting food delivered and helping to monitor people who are schizophrenic and with long-term mental problems through the advice they can give.
The pace of change is extraordinary. The Government should be very happy with all this. I urge them not to start having lots of policies, strategies and groups, or retooling, rebooting and growing the department for business again. It would be much better if the Government and Ministers listened carefully to what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Rees of Ludlow and Lord Giddens, and others in this debate, and just let it happen.
My Lords, when I was a student, my job was to be a bus conductor. It was not a bad job: you got lots of exercise running up and down the stairs and you met people. It was the number 8 bus from Salford to Little Hulton—maybe one or two noble Lords have ridden it. Of course, that job was pretty soon automated. Fairly soon, the driver’s job will be automated, too. Yes, this should improve the service, making it more reliable and perhaps more frequent, leading to more jobs—and not only for those who maintain and look after the buses. I imagine the public will want somebody on the bus for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, explained. They will not just make do with the chatbot we were told about by the noble Lord, Lord Patten.
Many noble Lords spoke about education. How are we to prepare people for being this new kind of bus conductor? It is certainly not by making all schools academies. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, made that point. It is just dogma. Converting them to the university technical colleges of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would be a big step in the right direction because the new bus conductors will need some understanding of robotics, artificial intelligence, satellite navigation, electrical engineering and transport technology, as well as having the warm and welcoming personality and manner to make the passengers feel welcome and good. You must prepare people to be part of the great job-creating machine in the Deloitte report. Yes, technology is creating more jobs but the jobs are very different.
It is particularly important that we get this right because many businesses and more and more self-employed people use website platforms and apps to access the services and products that this report speaks about. As well as seeing that education and training adapt, we in Parliament must also make sure that the Government adapt to this. However, in his recent report Sir Charles Bean produced some interesting examples where people using internet platforms and apps to conduct their business seemed to be doing so in a vacuum. The work did not appear in our national figures. It is too intangible. Ministers really must get a grip on this. If we do not know what is going on in our economy, some of the real benefits may well pass us by—especially as this type of work must be one route to solving our productivity puzzle, and productivity went down in the last quarter of 2015.
Early automation replaced brawn with machine. What is happening now is that we are replacing brain with machines with artificial intelligence. I agree with my noble friend Lord Giddens that we do not really know what the outcome will be. However, according to the Bank of England, 15 million jobs in this country are at risk. So the matters raised in this report are not just issues for the market to resolve—I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on that—they are also issues for the Government to address through an industrial strategy. I agree that a strategy is an act of faith—faith that it will lead not only to a stronger economy but also to the betterment of our society, a better standard of living, better quality of life and less inequality. But unless we have both a strategy and really know what is going on in our economy, dare I say that we are in real danger of missing the bus?
My Lords, it is pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Although it was not in my speech, I am now very much imagining in my head being “On the Buses” with a younger Lord Haskel, with Blakey chasing after him saying, “I’ll get you, Haskel”.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Borwick on securing such an interesting and timely debate, and commend the report from Deloitte on this subject. We have the highest level of employment ever and a good standard of living. We have rule of law, parliamentary democracy and freedom of speech. But why do we have such negativity as a start point to the potential of technology? Since 1950, the real price of a telly has reduced by 98%. Some may argue that there has been a direct link with the percentage reduction in programme quality over that same time period. But with stuff being available and cheap in a liberal democracy, why is the start point such negativity? I believe that this has nothing to do with technology and much to do with the very start point of our society and education—the classification that we learn in class when learning about things and, a little later, when learning about the relationship between those things. In the process of putting that classification to ourselves, we immediately make ourselves prime and everything else “other”. We seek to divide civilisation and barbarianism, culture and nature, the human and almost everything else. That is artificial and unhelpful. Having done that classification, it is unsurprising that we then feel the isolation which ensues and the fear of the other—in this example, technology. This is as good a case as any to argue for the pressing need for character education and creativity in the education process to enable resilience, self-reliance, self-belief, plasticity, flexibility, adaptability—everything that should always have been needed from education, and everything which, going forward, will be essential from education.
We should not be afeared. I say to my noble friend the Minister that I see absolutely no potential of her ever being replaced by a machine. Our start point comes from a classification, a division, which then inevitably leads to the social construct of the conflict between technology and humanity and between man and machine. Why should that be the start point? When you consider the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data, this is a phenomenal time to be alive. When Wordsworth stood on Westminster Bridge, he spoke of a time to be alive. What would he have said about this time to be alive? With all this possibility and potential, why do we have a negative start point? At least the start point should be neutral, if not have some initial positivity, because all this stuff has the potential to solve so many of the problems currently facing society. It is transformational. Dare I go further? I believe that in many ways this alone has the potential to save our National Health Service. Pouring more money in does not solve anything. Looking at smart, innovative, transformational ways of doing things—that is where the magic is. But none of this will happen as a matter of course. That is why I think at best a neutral stance, if not a slightly positive one, is the right place to start with technology. By the same token, how we relate to and position ourselves to technology will determine how much of this potential is realised. Technology itself will not solve problems; rather our relationship with technology will do so. Take inclusion, for example. In 2014, 4,000 young people took A-level computer science. Of that 4,000, only 100 were female. That is not a problem of technology or of computers; rather, it is a problem related to stuff that was knitted in way before those young people got anywhere near the A-level options and choices.
The Deloitte report also highlights the stark statistic that 35% of jobs are in danger of automation. Does this mean that we are all heading towards a jobless future, with joy gone? I do not believe so because by the same token by the end of this decade—never mind the decades to come—we will need more than 1 million new jobs in the digital space. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, this is happening at a pace far faster than the Industrial Revolution. We are already well under way. But we should not be afeared. If we relate to technology in the right way, its possibilities can be released. I do not believe that we need to seek to control this process. We need to enable the fluidity and the flow to be free. We should determine general principles and the general direction and be happy with that—not afraid. We cannot know where this is going. But that should not be a cause of fear; we should be happy about not having complete knowledge or complete control. Look how things have developed in the past. It took decades after the discovery of electricity for it to really drive our society and economy. After the invention of the steam engine to pump water out of flooded mines, there was a great distance to travel until we got to Stephenson’s “Rocket”. It is what my noble friend Lord Ridley, who is sadly not in his place, describes as ideas having sex—the sense that you do not know what will come out. There will be dead ends and misconnections but stuff will come from that process if we just enable it and be happy for it to run its course.
The path is not clear but that is no reason for us to be afeared. It is not clear but neither is it merely paved with good intentions. We should strive forward with considered confidence into a future fuelled by technology and increased productivity. We should focus on our relationship with that world, not be on the outside looking in. To draw on those fine words of EM Forster, we should focus and “only connect”.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for securing this debate; it is an important one. Regarding the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I am not sure whether I am an AI evangelist—perhaps he can give me some advice afterwards on the criteria to fit into that role. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his emphasis on being positive and confident.
It seems to me that the subtext of this debate is about change and how it is handled. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made very clear, the outcomes are largely unknown but there is a general sense of the direction that technology is driving in. Given the slightly expanded time, and as a 19th-century historian, I cannot resist giving my own example: there are horrors that many people have seen, where technology then comes to the rescue. In the 1880s, research was done in London showing that, with the increasing travel and increasing amount of horse manure, London would become totally clogged up with all the horse manure. Then, of course, along comes the motor car, horses disappear and the crisis does not happen.
I want to look at four perspectives on the change that this technological revolution is driving us towards, and I am going to have the temerity to suggest that the Minister might like to comment on these potential changes. The first thing we will have to look at is the changing shape of business, as it is business that largely invests in and develops technology. Some noble Lords will know that I do a lot of work in the areas of modern slavery, and sustainability and the environment. It seems to me that there are huge pressures on business at the moment to move from doing what we would call corporate social responsibility—helping out a bit with its profits—to new ways of audit and accountability that make business more of a global citizen and a player in the welfare of society through transparency in what it does and the positive way it tries to do it. It is going to be very important that, in this mode of being a global and a corporate citizen, business takes care to ensure that the benefits of technology are shared properly. That is what accountability will demand in the world in which we are set. The Government may have some comments on how this technological investment and development might be shared properly and on business changing its style, as it is doing at the moment.
My second perspective is about change in the role of work, which is an obvious one. There are of course, again, positive examples of new jobs, especially in the area of technology. However, in the world that I work in, jobs are less secure, they have to be more flexible and many people are on zero-hour contracts. Modern slavery is the second biggest crime in the world and is increasing massively; there is a really dark underside to the changes that technology is driving in the way that people have jobs. Another thing the Government might want to think about and comment on is what will be a responsible compact between business and workers in the future, as technology often requires workers to be extremely flexible, to be moved around and, perhaps, to be on very short-term projects. We are debating trade union legislation in this House at the moment; there will need to be a much more radical understanding of the relationship between business and workers.
The third area of change relates to the political context. The fact is, technological development is not neutral. It is very easy to look at it in a scientific mode and say that it is a neutral thing that can help us to stop having to do that heavy job and to increase our ways of getting a good agricultural return. However, technology has to be framed within a set of values, and we know in this House, as we do in Parliament generally, that people are withdrawing from engaging in the political process and are alienated from being part of it. We need a forum in which the values around which technology is developed can be debated and explored. The present political system is not fit for that purpose; we will need to have other forums such as civil society and local organisations. It will be a government responsibility to make sure that the values we hold, and around which technology is developed, are properly debated and explored.
My last point is about the change in welfare provision. From where I sit, besides all the positives, I see the disintegration of communities, the collapse of families, an ageing population, and more and more people living on their own. A friend of mine is a community nurse and her work practice has changed through technology. Instead of deciding who to visit and how long to spend with them and then writing up the reports at the end of the day, she has a program on her iPad: she has to be somewhere at a certain time and has to send off a report before she goes on to the next place. This technological efficiency totally cuts across the face-to-face pastoral engagement that people need for healthcare to flourish. It is the face-to-face element that we need to invest in if we are to have more people available for work. I am sure that bus conductors were very reassuring for people face to face; we do not want automated Japanese receptionists—we need a welfare system that runs with a strong face-to-face content. I raise these four issues of change that I think need to be thought about very carefully as we face the future of technology.
My Lords, I refer to the Register of Lords’ Interests, as I am a non-executive director of the technology company Imagination Technologies. I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Borwick on securing this important debate, and I commend the authors of the Deloitte report for showing thought leadership on so pivotal an issue.
The report rightly concludes that technology raises our standard of living, increases productivity and creates jobs in new sectors. Indeed, politicians and economists the world over have long extolled the societal benefits of technological progress, globalisation and innovation. The report offers us numerous examples of the obvious benefits of technological progress. It is surely good that we rely less on raw physical labour, that there are more women in the workplace and that people can work until later in life. We spend less on food and less on clothes thanks to technology, innovation and their collective impact on lowering prices.
As many noble Lords will have read in the report, it is certainly true that technology threatens some jobs and industries but that, overall, it can add to employment across the economy. As has already been mentioned, while some sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing, have declined, others have grown. The number of technology managers has increased by a factor of 6.5 in the last 35 years and the number of programmers has increased threefold to just under 300,000.
Some will ask how the Government can predict, control or indeed lead innovation in our economy so that they can manage their employment policy accordingly. Given that inventors and innovators rarely know the end use of their work, as it combines with the work of dozens others to drive change, what chance government? What then should the role of government be? According to a recent World Economic Forum publication, 65% of today’s primary school children will end up working in a job type that currently does not exist. Despite the sense of enormity that this statistic creates, education is the right place to start, as many noble Lords have already mentioned. This is precisely what the Government should be focusing on: giving our children the strongest possible foundation so that they can succeed.
I am proud of this Government’s record in helping to build this foundation. We have seen investment in science continue and we will see a further £6.9 billion invested in our research infrastructure up to 2021.
More particularly, children are now learning to code as soon as they start school and maths is one of the most popular A-level subjects. I know that noble Lords from all sides of the House will welcome the new National College for Digital Skills, which is opening its doors to students this autumn. It offers both sixth-form and further education opportunities in digital skills—future-proofing our children, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, mentioned, for whatever is to come. Education has forever been cited as the best return on investment that a Government can get. Even as the pace of technological change seems inevitably to increase, investing in education will help us all keep up.
My Lords, we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for bringing this debate forward. This is a short report and it is probably fair to sum it up as having a fairly traditional view: that the invisible hand of the capitalist system will bring us to a nice answer. When the report talks about technology we should start by remembering that even if the whole of society benefits, there are always pockets left behind. The way that we deal with those pockets might be a better test of the society and how it works than looking at the overall picture, because you end up wasting a great deal of money when you leave people behind.
When you get rid of an industry, that leaves lots of men—it traditionally has been men—past the traditional age of schooling and without a structure behind them. When they are left behind, you cannot get at them culturally or put resources into retraining them to take on new jobs and enable them to move to where those jobs might be placed. You will pay for that problem for a very long time, particularly if they leave a family behind who do not think that you are supposed to pass exams or have a job. This is just one of those things which we have to deal with. It is not new but it is continuing and unless we address it, the rosy words that go around the rest of this do not really mean much.
Having said that, I come to the point of technology and my own relationship with it. When it comes to new technology, I have been using, in my day-to-day life, stuff that was science-fiction when I was a child. I use voice-operation technology because I am dyslexic. Any letter which I have sent to any Member of this House has been sent by talking to a metal and plastic box which is technically attuned to pick up the vibrations in the air and translate those into words that are printed on a screen or paper. Thirty years ago, this was pure science fiction, such as in “Star Trek”, where they had a chat to the computer on the wall. We have not quite got round to having sarcastic comments back from it yet. I might also point out that there are certain mistakes which only these things can make. Although I can now spot them as they come out, I have become something of a master of sending letters with a wrong word that sounds just about right but means something completely different—so none of this is perfect.
We have to be trained to use this new technology and, as the rate of change goes on, to be better at intervening to top up the training. The noble Baroness, Lady Rock, spoke about education. The traditional model of education, where you go through various points on a conveyor belt, simply does not apply if you are to get to all those who are difficult to reach in society, or if we change the criteria by which we want people trained, because what we want them to do has changed. We have to get more flexible about this.
I should also declare another interest: I am chairman of the company Microlink, which deals with technical changes for those with disabilities, primarily in adaptation. We find ourselves having to do this frequently and often later in life because many of the conditions that we deal with are age related. But unless you intervene at certain points to keep the skills that people have, and to give them new skills to allow them to go back in, you are always going to create waste and have people left behind on the scrapheap. So although the innovation and the chances to make great change are there, they do not come totally free or sugar-coated. You are going to have to make changes to get through this, while relying on the fact that you will leave problems behind you.
That is probably why I felt that the tone of the report was a little glib. It assumes that everything will be great in the end. What do you do with the casualties of the change, or with the out-of-date ideas that are dominating your education system? Even where things can be changed, I have had numerous battles with the education and training programmes that state, “You must be able to write English”. The fact is that they have been excluding dyslexics, but that is only one group; others have problems with literacy as well. We have the technology to allow them into the system to get the information back, forgetting that reading and writing is a way of transferring information. It is not some voodoo thing that separates us from the savage but a way of conveying information. Unless we start to think in slightly different ways about the opportunities of technology, we will leave more and more people behind—and possibly even more of them if we do not adapt to the way that we change its use. These are the challenges that we must embrace and remember because if we do not, we will not get the full benefits.
My Lords, unlike some Members in other contexts, I would like to declare an interest today. It is the interest that I have had in this subject for 35 years, including when I first spoke on it when I was in this place before, in the early 1980s. When I was at Cambridge, I had a great and very close friend who worked in the Sanger lab at the MRC. He was a very distinguished young scientist, and we had a bet at the time. As a non-scientist, I was betting against a very sophisticated scientist about whether the Turing test would be passed in our lifetime—Philip and I are the same age. I cannot remember how much we bet, but I bet that it would be while he, as a very sophisticated scientist, said, “No, there is no way it will be”. There are those who believe that the Turing test has already been passed. I do not know whether it has—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rees, will have a better view on this than I do—but it is arguable that it has been passed already. I think that little story says something.
When I spoke 35 years ago in this place on this subject, I was predictably derided by some Members—perhaps too myopic to imagine the future—as a Luddite. Now I am pleased to see that the social and employment effects of the digital revolution are being seriously discussed by serious people, including by some who themselves are at the very forefront of it. I thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for bringing this important subject for debate today and the Government for their thoughtful initial engagement. I do not wish to upset my Whip, but I regret to say that I am not nearly as optimistic as my noble friend. In this regard, I remind your Lordships of the definition of an optimist—some people say it is someone who is not in possession of all the facts. I suggest again that that might be relevant when we are discussing this subject today.
This has been said before, but I am grateful for the recognition that things may be different this time. This is a view shared by several serious commentators, including, I see from the briefing pack, the Economist. I will not detain your Lordships by trundling out too many statistics, but noble Lords will have seen in the briefing pack the threat from the digital revolution and from artificial intelligence—which I do not think, unless I am blind, was mentioned at all in the Deloitte report, which is an extraordinary lacuna in my view. The threat from DR and AI to jobs and social stability is potentially alarming. Some of your Lordships may have read this already, but 47% of US jobs, 57% of OECD jobs, 69% of Indian jobs, 77% of Chinese jobs and 47% of UK jobs may be susceptible to automation. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and others have said, this of course includes the professions. Indeed there was a recent book on precisely this subject, called The Future of the Professions. It describes the fact that, as other speakers have said, particularly when you have AI that is constantly improving itself, it is not too great a leap of the imagination or a Luddite thought that those professions—not just accountants—could soon become surplus to requirements, in the sense that they will be replaced by artificially intelligent machines. As Henning Meyer of the LSE puts it,
“if only a small part of the well-founded predictions become reality then we are facing the prospect of major political and social upheaval”.
As the briefing pack points out, expressing a view that I share, despite the best intentions and efforts of the Government and businesses—for example, the good page with a lot of detail on it headed “Action for future skills”, on promoting the great importance of education, retraining and worker flexibility—the digital revolution and artificial intelligence bring a real threat of large-scale social disruption. Some fear this may lead to large-scale unemployment or underemployment, and discussion has arisen of the possible need, as your Lordships have heard, of what I believe some people are calling a universal basic income. But who is going to fund this? If the tax base shrinks dramatically, where is the funding for this universal basic income going to come from? Will it just come from the few individuals, companies or corporations who will dominate the world? Your Lordships do not need me to name some of those who have already established a dominant market position.
These are big, serious and challenging questions for the Government, business and workers to confront. I genuinely applaud the Government for starting to engage seriously in this debate. I must be quick, as I see six minutes have gone already, but I will just say a last word about artificial intelligence. This is probably a subject for debate in 30 years’ time rather than now, but if any of your Lordships want to see a snapshot of the future, do view the film “Ex Machina”, because it really gives an idea of where we may be going.
First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on introducing this debate, He has been a very keen observer of developments in business and technology, and it is characteristic of him to introduce such an interesting topic to this House and to keep our attention on the challenges of the future. I also congratulate Deloitte not just on an excellent report but on encouraging this debate and keeping our attention on the challenges of the future. It has done an outstanding job in this and other reports.
Many will be familiar with the view expressed by Mao, when asked how he evaluated the French Revolution. He replied that it was too early to tell. Tonight, we are being asked to evaluate whether the luddites actually have a point, some 200 years later. The question comes down to this: are today’s technological innovations like those of the past, which made obsolete some jobs but made new ones, or is there something about today that is markedly different? My noble friend Lord Giddens made a very good point in distinguishing between advances in some forms of science and technology, particularly consideration of the digital revolution and automation, and their likely impact. They raise questions that we may not be able to address with the same positive confidence that the report expresses.
The question is no longer: are machines getting so smart that we no longer need unskilled labour to operate them? Recently, the chief economist of the Bank of England, describing the results of a Bank of England study into the impact of technology on jobs, made a very worrying statement. He said:
“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past. Why? Because 20th century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened”.
The numbers that he cites are stark: 15 million jobs at risk out of a total workforce of about 30 million. That presents a considerable challenge.
Change always causes concern, but this debate is important and useful because it requires us to consider carefully what we must do to make ourselves properly adaptable and how we address the future. Indeed, the challenges are not just about the impact on jobs but the overall impact on economic activity and how each part of society benefits or loses from it. It also raises profound challenges, such as long-term unemployment, economic consequences of ageing and democracy and even the challenges of what we will do with large amounts of leisure time.
We also know that technology has created a debate about widening inequality, and the spectacular rise of the top 1%—or even the top 10%, in a different evaluation—has caused great alarm. Many people ascribe this problem to technology. Technology seems to have an impact, but it is less than people expect. If we look at the evaluation of jobs in America, the number of technology jobs in the top percentages is quite small. Under 5% of workers in these areas are in the top 1% of earners. The evidence suggests that elite inequality is the result of the lack of open access and market competition in elite investment and labour markets. This helpfully reminds us that technology is not always to blame for every ill we have to face, but is also a sharp reminder that it may not be as much a part of the solution as we would hope.
So what should we do when we do not have the certainty that we would need to work out how we face the future? We have to invest in that which we know works and that which delivers adaptability.
We must consider two areas carefully. One is of course skills and the other is our investment in technology and science, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, ably explained during her oration. For the UK economy and workforce to continue benefiting from technology, investment in training, education and skills is vital.
The latest Deloitte report on technology and people does not provide a silver bullet to ensure that people, especially low-paid workers, and the development of technology grow together harmoniously, but it stresses the importance of skills, particularly in the context of an ever-more globalised economy. It is stated that:
“Technological growth, and the accompanying changes in business models, make the continuous adaptation of skill sets absolutely fundamental for successful participation in the labour market. More so than ever before, individuals that are not willing or able to do this will face being left behind”.
We also really need to invest in that where we are strong. We have an extraordinary science and technology base in this country. We have invested in it. I pay great tribute not just to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who did a tremendous job, but to this Government for continuing it.
I recently had the very great pleasure of going to Harwell, the laboratory in Oxford run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. I saw the amazing facilities that we have there: the amazing Diamond Light Source producing a stream of electrons to create light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, to be able to look at anything from viruses to vaccines, a synchrotron creating a flow of neutrons for study of materials at the atomic scale. We have a world-leading facility: there are three facilities of that type in the world. There is a space centre providing for the most extraordinary achievements. We have great companies springing out of it and using the facilities to get better.
We have great ideas turning into great products. It is creating jobs. The fear is that the sort of jobs that we are creating—the technicians and other jobs supporting those areas—are not going to people who are educated or even born in this country. Recruitment is going far too much overseas because we have too few who have been directed into those areas. That is the challenge that we have now.
Finally, at the end of this excellent debate, we should doubly thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, and Deloitte for raising this debate. They have presented an interesting issue. The Luddites would probably ask the wrong questions and probably gave the wrong answer. It is our challenge to do better.