‘Don’t Fear Robots, Embrace An Android’: Tom Watson Says New Machines Can Liberate Workers

Britons should “embrace an android” and welcome the rise of robots in the workplace, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has declared.

Unveiling the final report of his party’s Future of Work Commission, Watson hailed a key finding that the increasing use of hi-tech machines could create as many jobs as it destroys.

The Shadow Digital Secretary, who convened and co-chaired the commission, said that letting robots take over heavy lifting and routine tasks would liberate workers into taking on more fulfilling roles – if Government invested in skills.

But he also called for a new independent body to monitor the ethics of artificial intelligence and technology.

Labour would also look at plans to outlaw “algorithmic discrimination” against the poor or ethnic minorities by online giants such as Google and Facebook.

“The problem the UK has at the moment is not that we have too many robots, but too few,” Watson said.

“What I’m really saying is – robots can set us free. Free to pursue working lives in which everyone will learn new skills, not once during a long career – but three of four times.

“A former Prime Minister once famously said: ‘Hug a hoodie’. Today, I’m asking you to embrace an android.”

The Commission found that mass unemployment from robotics is “highly unlikely”, despite one forecast that 10 million UK jobs could be lost to technology.

But it warned that the earning power of the high-skilled over the low-skilled will increase further without Government intervention.

The independent Future of Work Commission was made up of experts from across academia and industry, including Nobel prize winner Sir Christopher Pissarides, Harvard’s Professor Michael Sandel and Oxford’s Professor of Machine Learning Michael Osborne.

The recommendations of its year-long study include:

Among the most innovative recommendations is the creation of a new Standing Commission on Ethics and Technology and extending the Equality Act 2010 allow “a right to understand the basis for algorithmic decision-making and to prohibit discrimination by algorithms”.

“Ethics and algorithm training should be compulsory for those involved in the process of production of AI-related technologies. It must cover the potential for algorithmic bias, monitoring and impact of diversity,” the report states.

“The Equality and Human Rights Commission should be consulted on developing a training programme.

“The Equality Act 2010 should be extended to allow a right to understand the basis for algorithmic decision-making in the supply of goods and services and in making decisions as to whom to select for work, and to prohibit discrimination in decision-making on the basis of unjustified characteristics in algorithms in these sectors.”

In recent years, the automatic nature of algorithms has led to claims of discrimination.

Google’s online advertising system once showed an ad for high-income jobs to men much more often than it showed the ad to women, a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found.

Research from Harvard University found that adverts for arrest records were more likely to show up on searches for distinctively black names and a study by the University of Washington found that a Google Images search for “C.E.O.” produced 11 percent women, even though 27 percent of United States chief executives are women.

Facebook faced claims last month that it was allowing advertisers to racially discriminate in their ads for housing.

One study by London Business School and MIT found online ads promoting careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) on Facebook, Google, and Twitter were shown 20 to 40 per cent more frequently to men than women.

US firm Boston Dynamics underscored the rapid advances in technology with a recent clip of its back-flipping robot.

Japanese car manufacturers have for years adapted robots to make their plants more efficient, while creating highly skilled jobs in British factories in the process.

Retailers are slowly replacing checkout staff with self-service machines and supermarkets are starting to use robots in everything from shelf-stacking to night-time cleaning.

But among the biggest areas where automation is now expected to feature are agriculture and the construction industry, with fruit-picking machines replacing low-paid migrant work and specialist robots taking manual labour jobs in housebuilding.

Up to a third of the two million construction jobs in the UK could be affected by the “fourth industrial revolution” by 2040, one study estimated. Bricklayers, and painters and decorators could all be hit by the changes.

Many warehouse jobs are already being replaced by automation. In 2012, Amazon bout robotics company Kiva, which makes robots that move heavy, tall stacks of shelves and research shows it will save billions if all its centres used such machines.

When the firm announced it was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain, markets assumed that the company intended to swiftly automate all its food-distribution centers as well as its stores.