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  • Increased automation can help phase out mundane tasks in favour of better work
  • RSA/YouGov poll reveals British business leaders wary of new technology
  • Call for new National Centre for AI & Robotics to accelerate automation ‘on our own terms’ 

A report published today by the RSA think-tank has encouraged UK businesses to embrace AI & robotics – arguing that new technology has the potential to raise productivity levels, boost flagging living standards, and phase out ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ tasks in favour of more purposeful and human-centric work.

Published today, The Age of Automation warned, however, that the UK is fast becoming a ‘laggard’ in the adoption of new machines and called on UK business leaders to accelerate their take-up of technology. The RSA found that sales of robots to the UK decreased over 2014-15, with British firms falling behind the US, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

A YouGov poll of UK business leaders, commissioned by the RSA, revealed that UK business leaders are currently wary of adopting AI and robotics, with just fourteen percent of firms currently investing in this technology or soon planning to. Twenty-nine percent of businesses believe AI & robotics to be too expensive or not yet proven and twenty percent want to invest but believe it will take several years to ‘seriously adopt’ the new technology.

The report, published with the support of Google, argued that current assessments of automation fail to appreciate that technology can complement workers as well as compete with them. Examples include robotic systems used by overburdened care workers to help lift patients, and ‘chatbots’ that provide call-centre workers with partially automated responses that speed up the process of answering customer queries.

Pointing to the UK’s lowest unemployment rate since 1971, the authors argue that occupations are more likely to evolve than be eliminated as a result of automation, with growth in both tech-jobs and human-centric jobs that remain out of reach of machines. Their research finds the number of programmers has grown by 40 percent since 2011, while the ranks of nursery nurses and assistants have swelled by 25 percent.

The report argued that AI and robotics could boost productivity growth in low paying service sectors, such as care, logistics and retail, thereby opening the door to higher wages. One example highlighted is the case of US-based Starksy Robotics, which aims to take HGV drivers out of trucks and into offices, where they can man and control as many as 30 vehicles using an array of sensors and robotics technology.

Whilst embracing technology unreservedly could exacerbate economic and geographic inequalities, the RSA researchers argue that concerted leadership will allow society to achieve ‘automation on its own terms’. Among the report’s recommendations are to establish a National Centre for AI & Robotics, which would encourage the responsible take-up of innovations among industry, and for employers to co-create automation strategies with their workforce – setting out how staff can retrain to work alongside new machines.

Commenting on the report, RSA Associate Director, Benedict Dellot said: 

Some may view the slow take up of AI and robotics as a welcome reprieve from the disruptive forces of technology. But all this will mean is a continuation of the status quo, which is a low-skilled, low-paid and unproductive economy that does little to improve people’s living standards. Whether it’s robots that relieve manufacturing workers of dangerous tasks, algorithms that enable doctors to recommend more appropriate treatments, or machines that can help social care workers lift and carry patients, advances in AI and robotics promise to pave the way towards a better world of work. It is now up to policymakers, employers and educators to help society grasp the opportunities.

 

The report also called for a shake-up of the education system, with greater emphasis on lifelong learning and an overhaul of how STEM subjects are taught. A key recommendation is to pilot personal training accounts along the lines of those now in operation in France and Singapore, which would give every worker an annual stipend to spend on accredited courses.

The study also looks at funding for AI and robotics, cautioning that our departure from the EU could compromise support for innovation (with 80 percent of funding for UK robotic and autonomous system research reportedly coming from the EU, according to the House of Commons Science Committee). The authors urge the government to raise its funding commitment as well as for the social investment community to throw their weight behind ‘socially responsible technology’. 

Commenting on the report, Jobeda Ali, Co-Founder of Three Sisters Care, a domiciliary care service provider in London, said:

The UK’s social care system is in crisis. There simply aren’t enough care workers to serve the needs of a growing older population, and our existing workforce faces enormous pressure in picking up the slack. We see the use of robotic systems not as a looming challenge but a welcome relief. By doing the more manual, repetitive and mundane tasks, the machines we’re developing will allow our staff to do what they do best: spend time with patients, give them emotional attention and be a source of comfort. I’m not interested in robots to cut my workforce, but to plug staff shortages and make caring a more meaningful and sophisticated profession.

Katie O'Donovan, Public Policy Manager, Google UK, said:

This report is an important step in moving beyond fear of the potential future to concrete proposals for how society can best prepare itself for an evolving workplace. This future will be full of opportunities to improve work for many in the UK and improve our overall productivity. High quality training of the UK workforce is one way we must meet this challenge and Google is contributing to this need by providing five hours of digital skills coaching for everyone in the UK. 

Facts & figures about AI & Robotics: 

  • The Centre for Economics and Business Research, found that the UK has just 10 robot units for every million hours worked, compared with 131 in the US, 167 in Japan, and 133 for Germany.
  • Nearly half (46%) of the business leaders who took part in the RSA/YouGov poll agreed that new technologies will lead to incremental automation and greater prosperity in the long run. Just 15 per cent took a negative view that technology will lead to the significant automation of jobs, harming livelihoods in the process.
  • Grim predictions of AI and robotics decimating the UK labour market appear unsubstantiated. The RSA/YouGov poll of British business leaders suggests 15 percent of private sector jobs have the potential to be fully automated in the next decade.
  • Currently, there are widely different estimations of how many jobs are likely to be displaced by new machines. Academics from the University of Oxford predicted in 2013 that 35 per cent of UK jobs had the potential to be automated, whereas more recent studies put the figure at 10 percent (OECD), 5 percent (McKinsey), and 30 percent (PwC). A Pew poll of technology and business experts found a 52:48 split between those who believe AI will create more jobs than they destroy, and those that think the opposite.
  • The global market for robotics and AI-based systems is expected to grow from $58bn in 2014 to $153bn by 2020. The amount of venture capital funding going into robotics doubled between 2011 and 2015 to $587 million.
  • RSA analysis showed that since 2010, although jobs in retail trade have fallen by 7000, jobs in warehousing have increased by 115,000 – partially as a result of e-commerce and the automation of bricks and mortar retail jobs.
  • Earlier this year the UK government committed an extra £17.3m on university research into AI and robotics, however, our departure from the EU could compromise support for innovation (with 80 percent of funding for UK robotic and autonomous system research reportedly coming from the EU according to the House of Commons Science Committee).
  • UK workers are on average 35 percent less productive than their counterparts in Germany and 30 percent less than workers in the US.

 

Notes to editors:

  1. For further information contact RSA Head of Media & Communications, Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or luke.robinson@rsa.org.uk

 

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