1984 was the year in which was set the greatest work of dystopian sci-fi. Not George Orwell’s masterpiece of the same name but the first instalment of the Terminator franchise. In the first movie Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a bad robot sent back to do us harm. The franchise reached its zenith in 1991 when Arnie made good on his word ("I'll be back") and returned, but this time as the good guy. The question for policymakers to ask when it comes to automation is, can we expect Arnie 1 or Arnie 2? Will robots harm or help?

There are two schools of thought on the likely impact of automation - the techno-optimists and the techno-pessimists. The former, led by academics such as Brynjolfsson and McAfee, believe that the pace of innovation has not slowed we are at the dawn of a second machine age every bit as transformational as the industrial revolution. In the pessimist's corner is Robert Gordon who has argued persuasively that technology is no longer able to deliver the productivity driven economic growth of yesteryear. Put simply, we have picked all the low hanging fruit (running water, electricity, cars, antibiotics etc) and can look forward to a much slower rate of productivity growth.

But even if the optimists are right and automation can kick start productivity, a growing techno-anxiety is brewing. Could automation render workers obsolete or are these the concerns of luddites? Carl Frey is perhaps best known for his work with Michael Osborne that quantified just how susceptible different jobs are to automation. In his new book: The technology trap, he argues that the Luddites, far from being dim-witted technophobes, were in fact on to something. He cites the Engels' pause, a 40-year period at the end of the industrial revolution in which wages stagnated. Although technology would go on to deliver unparalleled prosperity for the masses in the short-term it could be catastrophic, and the short term is often an entire working life.

Frey argues that technology can either enable workers or replace them and that throughout history replacing technologies have been fought off. However, during the industrial revolution it was deemed necessary for international competitiveness to accept these technologies and ensuing dissent was put down by the state. Then as now, many workers face the prospect of displacement. The answer must be a focus on education and retraining and at this point the automation threat is really a side note when you consider that investment in training has been falling and the apprenticeship levy isn’t working. To build the economy of the future, policymakers need to put skills at the heart of the Industrial Strategy.

It's worth remembering that Arnie 1 and Arnie 2 were the same model of terminator. What made one good and one bad was their programming which was determined by the will of the programmer. As we argued in our evidence to the BEIS committee, it is within our power to make technology work for us and this means embedding it into the workplace the same way any change would be embedded:

"Like any change in the workplace, we should treat the introduction of new technologies the same way with we would other major interventions; it must be complemented with employee engagement strategies, work organisation, skill-matching, and the quality of line management. If businesses get the people aspect right, they can minimise the adverse impact that technology will have on some jobs and maximise the chance that technology and automation will improve work."

No robots please, we're British, will probably not fly as in pre-industrial times, but automation must be embraced strategically and for the common good. Put simply, to make a success of automation, it is the people bit that needs to be got right.

About the author

Jon Boys, Labour Market Economist

Jon joined the CIPD in January 2019 as an Economist. He is an experienced labour market analyst with expertise in pay and conditions, education and skills, and productivity.

Jon primarily uses quantitative techniques to uncover insights in labour market data, both publicly available and generated through in house surveying. Jon regularly contributes commentary and analysis of economic issues on the world of work to online, print and TV media. Recent work includes the creation of an international ranking of work quality, analysis of firm level gender pay gap reporting data, and an ongoing programme of work looking at the changing age profile of the UK workforce. 

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