British organisations must step up to the challenges of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation

A report published by the RSA think-tank has encouraged UK businesses to embrace artificial intelligence, automation and 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. The Age of Automation report warns, 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, found 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, argues 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 argues 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.

Key findings:

AI and robotics have a chequered past but recent advances justify the hype

It is often assumed that AI and robotics are new technologies. Yet both have their origins in the early to mid-part of the 20th century. Artificial intelligence was formally conceived as a research field at an academic convention in 1956, while the first articulated robot appeared in a General Motors factory in 1961. It is only relatively recently, however, that these technologies have begun living up to the expectations set by their early pioneers, thanks in large part to exponentially rising computer power, mammoth amounts of data on which to train, and new approaches to programming. The advent of machine learning and deep learning techniques has been transformative in ratcheting up the power of AI. Thanks to these developments, machines can now write basic news articles for media outlets, undertake case research for legal firms, trade stocks and shares on financial markets and carry out facial recognition on photos and video footage. The hype surrounding these technologies is justified.


AI and robotics are unlikely to lead to huge job losses (at least in the medium term)

It is common to hear experts and economic pundits predict that AI and robotics will decimate swathes of jobs, but there are several reasons to be wary of such claims. Despite impressive advances in machine capability, many tasks remain outside their scope, particularly those demanding manual dexterity and deeper forms of creativity and communication. Moreover, automation tends to be task-based rather than job-based, allowing workers to pivot into new roles should machines encroach on their turf. There are also macro effects to consider. While it is easy to overstate the dynamics of creative destruction, new jobs will undoubtedly be formed just as others peter out. The number of programmers in the UK has grown by 40 percent since 2011, while the ranks of IT directors have doubled over the same period. More subtly, rising productivity caused by new machines could lead to a lowering of prices, thereby freeing consumers to divert their demand elsewhere in the economy. The RSA/YouGov poll found that business leaders on average believe 15 percent of jobs in their organisation could be automated in the next 10 years, but over a fifth predict zero automation.


Human-centric jobs in healthcare, social care and education look set to prevail

Most studies on automation indicate that low-skilled and low-paid workers will bear the biggest brunt of disruption. Deloitte estimate that UK jobs paying less than £30,000 are five times more vulnerable to displacement than jobs paying £100,000 or more. Yet the vulnerability of workers to automation will vary significantly by industry. Our RSA/YouGov poll reveals that 15 percent of business leaders in retail and 21 percent in transport and distribution see high potential for automation in their organisation (defined as more than 30 percent of jobs at risk). The picture is markedly different for sectors bound up in the provision of experiences and person-to-person interaction. Just 4 percent of business leaders in hospitality and leisure, 2 percent in medical and health services, and 3 percent in education see the scope for high automation among their workforce. Jobs in these sectors require competencies that are currently very difficult for machines to replicate, such as empathising, forming authentic relationships and communicating in open ended dialogue. For now, care workers, teaching assistants and therapists have little to fear from machines.


Machines will almost certainly change the substance of jobs (often for the better)

While AI and robotics may not result in the widespread loss of jobs, they will overhaul occupations and transform our working lives. In the report we point to four key ‘dimensions of automation’ beyond the impact on job numbers: recruitment, pay, worker experience and consumer power. In each of these areas, AI and robotics can be applied for better or worse. New machines could be used to de-skill jobs, strip workers of their bargaining power, put downward pressure on wages, amplify monitoring and standardisation of work, and bake biases into recruitment. Yet the same technology could equally raise productivity, open up the door to higher wages, phase out mundane work in favour of more intellectually stimulating vocations, and create a level playing field in terms of recruitment. In virtually every occupation we can find technologies that complement rather than compete with workers – from robotic systems that support overburdened care workers to lift patients, to algorithms that enable doctors to recommend more appropriate treatments, to chatbots that provide call centre workers with partially automated responses to speed up customer support.


But the UK appears to be a laggard in the adoption of AI and robotics

The impact of AI and robotics on workers will be largely determined by the choices we make as investors, employers, educators, consumers and policymakers. Yet these choices will be irrelevant unless the UK accelerates its take up of AI and robotics. The RSA/YouGov poll of UK business leaders finds that just 14 percent are currently investing in this technology or plan to in the near future. 20 percent want to invest but say it will take a significant amount of time to do so, while 39 percent believe the technology is too costly or not yet proven. Data from other sources indicates a similar picture. The International Federation of Robotics shows that sales of industrial robots fell in the period between 2014 and 2015, with the UK purchasing fewer robots than France, the US, Germany, Spain and Italy. While this may reflect our different sectoral make-up, UK businesses and public services as a whole suffer from stubbornly low rates of investment. Data from the World Bank shows the proportion of UK GDP accounted for by gross fixed capital formation (a measure of investment) has fallen by 7 percentage points since 1990.


Embracing the new machine age could usher in a better world of work

Some may view the slow diffusion of AI and robotics as a welcome reprieve. It will give society time to adjust. Workers can keep hold of their jobs for longer. There will be less need to retrain and shift careers. Business can carry on as usual. Yet it is worth reminding ourselves what business as usual means. While work is plentiful, the bulk of it is low-skilled and low-paid, and our productivity levels are in the doldrums. On average, UK workers are 35 percent less productive than their counterparts in Germany and 9 percent less than Italian workers. Sluggish productivity growth has in turn been felt in stagnant wages, with real median wages still far below their pre-crisis levels. The central argument of this report is that the deployment of AI and robotics could help the UK forge a path towards a better world of work – one that sustains and improves living standards. Most of the business leaders who took part in our survey agreed with this sentiment, with 43 percent saying that new technologies will lead to incremental automation and greater prosperity in the long run.


But achieving automation on our own terms will require bold and wide-reaching policy reform

While the report highlights the promise of a new machine age, it also cautions that embracing technology unreservedly could exacerbate economic, geographic and demographic inequalities. AI and robotics if deployed on a large scale would result in both losers and winners. The challenge, then, is to accelerate the adoption of this technology but in a way that delivers automation on our own terms. This will require interventions across the technology lifecycle – from the point at which machines are conceived to the time they are deployed in the workplace. Among our recommendations are for the government to establish a National Centre for AI and Robotics that would spur greater take-up of innovations, and to create personal training accounts that would aid lifelong learning and career changes. Outside of government, the report calls upon employers to co-create automation strategies with their workforce, for investors to direct more funding to benevolent technologies, and for the tech community to take a lead on drafting and signing up to ethical frameworks. A common message the report returns to time and again is that we do have choices as a society over how we marshal technology.


Who owns the machines will become an increasingly important question

Most importantly, we need to begin a conversation about who owns the machines and how to distribute their proceeds more widely. While for most of human history our problems have revolved around issues of material scarcity, the new machine age promises to bring about an era of unprecedented abundance – more than enough to meet everyone’s needs. The question is whether we have the political courage and conviction to share the wealth wisely. A publically owned sovereign wealth fund could be set up to invest in company assets and emerging technologies, and channel dividends to every citizen in the form of a technological inheritance (or universal basic dividend). Less radical but no less important, the government and business groups could take steps to expand the employee ownership and profit sharing movements, where workers have a direct stake in companies and by extension the machines they are investing in. This also means championing cooperatives where workers fully own and manage their organisations on a one-person, one-vote basis.


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.”

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.