Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is the third article in a five-piece series on how the Conservatives must seize the opportunities presented by new technologies transforming our economy and society.
You have just shut down the computer after a long day at work and, like many commuters, you head off in your car to face the rush-hour motorway traffic, battling tiredness all the way. Once home, you open the fridge, only to find that you forgot to pick up milk on the way home.
Sound familiar? Only now, new technology heralded by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is on the verge of causing a social and consumer revolution, where driverless cars will let us relax during the commute and smart fridges will order fresh groceries before they run out. That means less time doing mundane chores, a productive experience at work, and more leisure time at home.
For some, this might sound like a scene from a generic sci-fi movie, but in truth both driverless cars and internet-connected smart fridges already exist, and it is just a matter of time before they become mass-market products.
They are just a tiny portion of the widespread changes that the 4IR will bring to the consumer world, driving down costs for both businesses and consumers, and facilitating far more personalised products and services. For instance, personalised medicine will mean a new generation of targeted drugs that could usurp chemotherapy as the conventional method of cancer treatment, sparing millions of people from the brutal side-effect of healthy cells being attacked as well as tumorous ones. Equally, 3D printing will drive down the cost of niche products, as the break-even point for manufacturing in small quantities is slashed. From medicine to manufacturing, new technologies will make it practical and possible to improve quality as well as efficiency.
So as Conservatives we must convince voters that these new and emerging technologies will not just be positive at a macro-economic level, boosting productivity and exports as described in the previous days’ articles – but also useful tools that improve lives at a household level too. If we are to sustain public trust in the 4IR as an economic and social phenomenon, we must show people what’s it for them, and why they should let us lead it in government.
Partly that’s about selling a positive message that the 4IR will bring about affordable and accessible technology – and implementing policies such as those outlined over the past three days to create new jobs, back new businesses, boost skills and keep wages high. History shows this approach works: people living in the UK are on average more than five times richer than their ancestors 100 years ago, after adjusting for inflation. Back then, the only people who could afford cars were the wealthiest, with even a Model T Ford costing around four times the average wage. From better healthcare to lower energy bills to more affordable transport, we Conservatives must ensure the fruits of the 4IR are available to everyone, not just the wealthy few.
But in addition, we must also ensure the ethical and moral questions around new technologies are tackled head-on. Answers must be found for ethical brainteasers such as the Trolley Problem. In a 4IR context, this will mean developing regulatory frameworks for AI-powered driverless cars faced with a split-second decision between killing a child that has stepped into the road or swerving and in all likelihood injuring a car full of passengers. This will no longer be a philosophical or theoretical scenario. It will be reality.
Similarly, when the news broke last week that the revamped billboard at Piccadilly Circus would incorporate concealed cameras tracking cars and pedestrians, it was dubbed the “Big Brother Billboard”. This kind of targeted advertising has been happening on the internet for years, but new technology gives advertisers the ability to project digital techniques into the physical world.
In the 4IR, computing, robotics and AI will be far too complex and diverse to be governed a simple set of rules like Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” – made famous in the Will Smith blockbuster I, Robot. From voice-controlled computers to automatic doors and laser weapons, science fiction has often preceded science fact. The best of this genre has tried to consider the ethical and social implications of new technologies before it is too late to shape their development and regulation. As the 4IR accelerates, governments – and political parties – will be confronted with, and must urgently tackle, issues that authors like Asimov have been writing about for decades.
In the 4IR, our economy will be as dependent on data as it was reliant on oil in the last century. The rules that will govern how we collect data and what businesses can do with it will be as important as more traditional political concerns like trade union rules and working time directives.
So we Conservatives must lead the national debate on issues like the ethics of AI, privacy in the digital age, and data governance – not cede the ground to a Labour Party intent on creating a dystopian vision for the 4IR. This should include input from business, government, charities, pressure groups and voters themselves. Having proposed a new National AI and Robotics Institute, this could also act as a base for a new National Advisory Council on AI and Robotics to co-ordinate engagement on policy and regulatory issues.
The scope of this debate should also include ways to ensure we make the 4IR inclusive of everyone, regardless of their income bracket or how far they live from major urban areas. The digital divide and the urban/rural divide must be bridged in the 4IR.
We are already laying some of the groundwork for inclusive growth with the Industrial Strategy, and we must do more. That includes building on Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine as strategies for generating prosperity outside the South East, continuing the roll-out of superfast broadband, and funding major transport infrastructure investment such as HS3.
Only through this One Nation approach will we Conservatives ensure that the benefits of the 4IR are felt by everyone.
While Labour might want to turn back the clocks with an anti-innovation agenda from the 1970s, we need embrace the 4IR and make a proactive Conservative case for the benefits that new technology will bring.
To do so, Britain must lead the world in establishing the regulatory frameworks that will be adopted around the world as the future is formed. Just as Greenwich Mean Time become the global standard for time in the 19th century, with the right political leadership Britain can determine the parameters of Fourth Industrial Revolution’s social and ethical boundaries for years to come.