What Can History Teach Us About The Implementation Of AI, Automation And Other Job Reducing Technologies?

The term ‘luddite’ originally referred to those who opposed the job losses brought on by the Industrial Revolution.  So, are those that oppose the threats to jobs from advances in technology the luddites of today? 

Of course, no-one wants to see job losses and we should do all we can to prevent that occurring. But neither does anyone want to prevent progression.  If history has taught us anything, it’s that it’s futile to try to stop the advancement of invention – in all its forms.  

We happen to be living in a time when that advancement is coming thick and fast and arguably, with respect to employment, at a pace not seen since the Industrial Revolution.  

But, if the Industrial Revolution taught us anything, it’s that vast change spurs innovation – and, just as happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, we are already seeing a host of new industries emerge.

Are there lessons that history can teach us so we can better ride this change, creating new jobs to replace those that could be lost?

During the 18th and early 19th century whereas much of Europe was undergoing political upheaval Britain was, by contrast, politically stable. Our unique relationship between monarchy and parliament meant the national interest as opposed to the interest of the monarch had more sway. For example, taxes were (on the whole) for country, not King.

Of course, the reasons behind the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s success during that time are considerably more complex than can be covered here, but the importance of the right framework from which new industries could emerge and conquer the world can’t be overstated. Most importantly, in the 18th and early 19th century that framework was a mixture of both accident and design. For example, on one hand Britain benefitted from a constitution that ensured the national interest overrode that of the King. On the other, the new jobs created by the factories absorbed those workers thrown off the land by the agricultural revolution and the enclosures. This, and much more, led Britain to become one of the richest countries in the world.

Our circumstances may have changed, but again we have that unique mix of accident and design that is spurring growth: a leading financial sector; free movement of people causing talent to flock to our shores; world renowned universities around which new businesses emerge; a culture of invention and innovation; generous funding schemes, and, with regard financial technology, an innovative regulator that is the envy of the world. With financial technology and its close relative regulation technology, the UK leads the way.  

The British heritage for entrepreneurship is a strong as ever. In fact, it continues unabated with data showing a record 657,790 new businesses were registered with Companies House in 2016, up from 608,110 in 2105. Despite some dire predictions, M&A activity also held up in 2016 at £144bn.

The UK has also proved itself a prime location for start-ups, young businesses that not only create new jobs but attract significant investment. Not only has the UK built up a strong economy around franchising, agency and distribution commercial set ups, many of these businesses have capitalised on brand development through the UK’s first-rate IP protection system. What is interesting is that 80% of franchise brands in Britain are UK-owned and developed. It is therefore important IP protection is preserved so the UK can remain competitive with the EU and the international community.

Moreover, institutions have thrived due to a first-rate regulatory environment combined with the many start-ups exploiting new technology resulting from investment, innovation, and collaboration with world renowned universities. The strength of our university sector is ensuring that some of the most exciting start-ups and university spin-outs aren’t just in London, but are UK wide.

It is easy for these young companies, the major players of the future, to launch elsewhere. We must keep them here. Ensuring the free movement of people is key to that.

If we are to offset inevitable job losses following AI and automation, we must allow our burgeoning new businesses to thrive.  And as we re-define our relationship with Europe, ensuring the framework that has proved and is proving so successful for spearheading innovation, attracting the best minds from all over the world as well as inward investment is crucial.

If history can teach us anything, it’s that much of Britain’s success has been down to circumstances near impossible to artificially create. So, as we look to the future, our priority must be to preserve that framework that has made us the success we are today.

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