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FREEMAN George smile

George Freeman is a co-founder of the 2020 Group, co-chair of the Innovation Economy, Commission and MP for Mid-Norfolk.  Jennifer Arcuri is founder of InnoTech Summit.

The technological revolution we are living through in the twenty-first century is every bit as profound as the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 18th and 19th. The Schumpeterian process of creative destruction, with new jobs taking the place of the old, has been the mark of human progress since the invention of the wheel. It has resulted in the highest standard of living ever achieved, with millions continuing to be lifted out of poverty the world over. Anyone with a mobile phone now has more information at their fingertips than the richest monarchs of only a century ago. New technology is fast making the Renaissance look like the Dark Ages.

The fact is that artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction; automated computing has advanced to a supreme speed, in ways we could never have imagined. But with such progress comes inevitable disruption, and an often painful human cost. The digital age has started. As machines continue to replace not just blue collar factory work but now middle class, white collar jobs, there are growing concerns about what we need to do to prepare for this new world and the skills to cope with the reshaping of our labour market in the years ahead.

More and more, we will see white collar jobs in areas such as administration, accounting and law being replaced by computers. What we have seen in western society with more tasks done better and more cheaply by computers is not going to abate, merely accelerate. The truth is that the automatic role and requirement for much of what we have always got from many of our most revered professsions – lawyers, journalists, professors, doctors – is being transformed beyond recognition by technology.

Google’s recent showcase of driverless cars is not just an extraordinary example of human ingenuity, but an equally extraordinary threat to taxi drivers.

The effect on income distribution is one of the most obvious consequences. For example, computerised search is taking over a lot of the jobs that used to be done by legal associates. The result is that we will likely have an increasing number of people in the lower middle class over time, facing the financial hardships that come with a reduced income. One of the problems so marked in our current age of technology is disparity in income; it seems likely that, as the revolution develops, these trends will become even more firmly established. You don’t have to share the politics of Thomas Picketty to worry that this might create a serious tear in the social fabric.

And what of the humans who are still working with computers? What will their roles looks like? Realistically, the new jobs of the future will revolve around the simple question of how well you work around machines. Even the most basic administrative work involves technological know-how. Most of us spend most of the day tapping away at a keyboard or staring at a screen. We won’t be going back to a world of scroll-and-inkpot soon. More significantly, access to limitless information is profoundly changing the skill set required from people across sectors.

The scale of this subject is something the Westminster village has yet to come to terms with. All politicians feel the need to bé in the business of protecting and promising jobs. Talking about how technology is challenging and changing work and replacing jobs isn’t a vote winner. Few want to talk about it. A sort of technological appeasement process ensues, with Parliament avoiding talking about it. But there are some important public policy issues which need to be addressed – on schooling, skills, apprenticeships, structural public sector barriers to innovation, and procurement, to name just a few. And if technology is hollowing out middle class jobs, leading to wider income inequality, then this becomes a big political challenge for our generation. How we respond has the potential to shape global economics and politics for decades to come.

What can public policymakers do to prepare for further disruptions in the labour market and society at large? The truth is that we are not helpless in the face of this change. We are only helpless if we bury our heads in the sand and refuse to respond to the facts around us. The key battleground for the twenty-first century won’t be an arms race; it will be an education race. The only way to thrive – and survive – this technological revolution is by equipping existing workers and the next generation with the skills they need to live and work with twenty-first century technology. It is the most crucial part of our long-term economic plan. Digital skills are key to the future of a twenty-first century job market and thus the future of our economy.

The lack of a well-informed debate fuels an unhelpful polarity of opinion between the Panglossians and the Luddites. It’s time we had a better discussion to better understand what we need to do to start preparing for this transition.

The fallout of the technological revolution is the most important event of our lifetimes. It is and will continue to shape our society, economy and our politics. Whatever happens, it is not something we can afford to ignore.

George Freeman MP and Jennifer Arcuri are hosting ‘The Call for Digital Skills: Tech vs Brains’ event in Parliament at 4pm on June 26. For more information contact jennifer@innotechsummit.com

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