The machine age is upon us. We must not let it grind society to pieces

  • What good is glittering technology if it robs us of jobs and rips communities apart? We need to work out how humans will prosper in a world of robots.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

We need to talk about work. The new machine age will transform our understanding of it. Work is the way we contribute to society, part of a reciprocal social contract – the giving of our effort and our taking when in need – that holds our society together. We work, we build our society, and we share in its prosperity.

But our social contract around work is broken. Back in the 1980s parts of our country were devastated by de-industrialisation. This wave of globalisation and the first fruits of technological innovation destroyed industrial jobs or exported them to low-wage economies.

The loss of work had a devastating impact. We must never forget the value of work because without it people are denied a sense of dignity and of community. When you lose work, the meaning and purpose of life are taken away from you, and isolation can set in. Research shows you are at greater risk of sickness, substance abuse and other challenges. Families can start breaking apart under the pressure, mental illness rises, and educational achievement collapses.

The Bank of England now predicts 15 million people are at risk of losing their jobs through automation; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts that automation will affect 9% of jobs across OECD countries. Whichever prediction proves correct, the future of work is going to be volatile and insecure.

Here in Britain the broken social contract around work was a prime cause of the Brexit vote. The political turmoil that has followed has coincided with a new digital age that promises boundless opportunity, and unpredictable levels of disruption.

When we look into the future we see science fiction becoming fact. Some predict humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300; 90% of the world’s data has been created in just a few years. New machines are now speaking, seeing, understanding, hearing, and writing. What will happen to people?

The Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn builds about a third of the world’s consumer electronics. It has already replaced 60,000 of its workers with robots. In other words, robots are now cheaper than human beings earning $5 a day.

Will job loss be compensated for by goods and services becoming cheaper? Will this increase incomes and boost demand for new goods and services, so creating new jobs? Past technological revolutions have behaved in this way. But some people do not believe the new digital economy will produce enough new jobs to replace the old ones.

The truth is, we do not know what will happen – there is little conclusive evidence. But, already, there is talk about a post-work society and the call for a universal basic income. Some want to fund it by taxing robots, others by a tax on using customer data.

But universal basic income is a counsel of despair: a signal that we have given up on fixing the social contract that binds our society. It would be the victory of selfish individualism, where society can wash its hands of responsibility for the poor, and the jobless can be abandoned. Across the country, workless neighbourhoods would become impoverished reservations of the dispossessed, subservient to and totally dependent on the state. People without work want help to get back on their own two feet and to provide for themselves – they do not want to depend on the state.

So our challenge is to make work matter. We need to put people at the heart of business success. Automation could liberate people from drudgery, if the public and private sectors work in partnership to make it happen. Work could become more fulfilling. In the new economy our most valuable asset will be human beings. We have emotional intelligence and perception, and the capacity to create, empathise, persuade and reason in abstract ways. We can make imaginative leaps, and we have intuition. In the new economy what will have added value is what is devalued today – the emotional labour of caring, communicating, creating and connecting.

We will not be able to achieve successful businesses in a failing society. There will be a few who believe otherwise, but the headwinds will be against them. We do not want glittering technology in a shabby and run-down country.

The purpose of technology is to help us achieve human flourishing and a common good. There is such a thing as society, so we must therefore protect the most vulnerable and ensure the benefits of these new technologies are apportioned in a socially just way.

So we will need to work out together how we can best retain and retrain; how we can employ new technologies to enhance human connection, not impoverish it; and what kind of ethics of algorithms, data and privacy we need. Facebook, Google and Amazon are the new oil companies, only they mine data – and we need to regulate these platform monopolies, stop transfer pricing, and make sure they pay their fair share of tax.

The TUC recognises this and, along with the Confederation of British Industry, is right to call for a commission on artificial intelligence, bringing together business, employees and academics to examine the impact of AI on people and jobs.

In this new digital age we will need an education system that encourages our children to learn how to think creatively. We will need a skills system that provides lifelong learning for all of us far into adult life, so we can adapt to a fast-changing labour market. We will need a national infrastructure fit for the 21st century. And we will need a new model of social security based on contribution that will enable each of us to acquire the assets and capabilities we will need for our security and prosperity, and much more.

What we don’t want is the end of work.