Tiptoeing towards policy for the Second Machine Age?

While politicians are quick to associate themselves with the latest trends, politics is usually slow to wake up to technological change and its impacts on society. Political institutions are old, the feedback loops are slow, and there is a vast range of levels of technological understanding in both Westminster and Whitehall.

And yet, something interesting is happening. We’re starting to see policymakers wake up to coming changes. Maybe we’re tiptoeing towards policy for the Second Machine Age.

A couple of weeks ago, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson penned a piece looking ahead at the risks of automation and the changing nature of work. There’s nothing in it that will be new to those who have read Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Tim O’Reilly, the Susskinds (who Watson cites) or any of the raft of thinkers who are engaging on these topics, but it’s provocative nonetheless. He asks:

“why isn’t the government addressing it? There is no minister for this new technology. No special cabinet committee has been set up to come up with solutions. There is no royal commission to look at the economic impact robots will have, or the ethical dilemmas they will pose. Where is the new institution that brings together trades unions, employers and government to establish how the time liberated and wealth created by robots is equitably shared?”

His warning that “we should regard automation as the most urgent issue facing the country” seems unecessarily alarmist, but he is largely right that government hasn’t really been doing much thinking (in public at least) about the changing nature of work and risks of automation. Thanks to the UK’s simpler labour market, we have been spared much of the agonising (and litigating) in the US about the categorisation of workers with regard to platforms like Uber, but this also means that on policy thought leadership we are lagging.

While the Conservatives [disclosure: who I used to work for] have championed many tech issues in government — from the sharing economy to driverless cars — there has been little explicitly recognition of the changing nature of work. Indeed, what should have been a great recent opportunity for this, Julie Deane’s review of self-employment, says nothing about the role of platforms and the on-demand economy, and doesn’t really grapple with the tricky questions of how you deliver pensions, sick pay, parental leave etc in the digital age.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but something surprised in last week’s Budget was that this looks like it may be slowly changing.

As Jimmy McLaughlin from the IoD observed:

Digging into a bit more detail, the Budget specifically announced:

New tax allowances for sharing economy activities: There will be two new income tax allowances worth £1,000 each, for personal income from trading or property, like renting out space in one’s home on Vrumi, or trading on Etsy. A recognition that people should be able to make (relatively small amounts of) money through new platforms, without either being treated as a business, or having to go through the hassle of filing a tax return and paying tax.

Measuring the digital economy better: The Chancellor announced that he was accepting in full the recommendations of Professor Charlie Bean’s review of the UK’s economic statistics. This may sound wonky, but as most people recognise — if you want to change something you need to measure it. This review highlighted the difficulties of capturing activity in the digital economy, particularly the sharing economy, in traditional statistical measures (eg of GDP and productivity) and called for changes to better measure digital activity.

Review of lifelong learning: One interesting announcement tucked away in the Budget was a new review of lifetime learning, looking at the gaps in existing offerings in order to promote retraining and prepare people for the labour market of the future.

The lifetime learning point in particular is really interesting, as it is explicitly tied to technological change:

The digital revolution is transforming the world of work. As working lives lengthen and jobs change, adults will need more opportunities to retrain and up-skill… To promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market, the government will review the gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study. (Budget 2016, Section 3.9)

A common thread running through these announcements seems to be a recognition that the world is changing, and policy needs to change in response. We need to be more flexible about the blurring of the lines between work and everyday life (sharing economy allowances), we need more flexible education and skills training throughout our lives (lifetime learning), and we need to measure it all better (Bean review).

I’ve also heard rumours that John Gibson (formerly of the ODI, Nesta and Fingleton Associates, and now back in Downing Street) is working on this. This is a good sign.

There is also a convenient vehicle for it to all be brought together in the upcoming Digital Strategy, announced with fanfare at the start of the year, and now gestating somewhere between DCMS and Daniel Korski’s office.

So overall it seems that while these changes are small in themselves, if they represent a direction of travel there is a fair bit of hope.

Separately we also saw last week Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee announce a new enquiry into robotics and artificial intelligence. The terms of reference include looking at the impact on the workforce:

“The implications of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future UK workforce and job market, and the Government’s preparation for the shift in the UK skills base and training that this may require.”

There is a risk that this turns into the doom-mongering hyperbole that has characterised much of the journalism on the subject of AI, again it is a welcome step that parliament is thinking more deeply about some of these issues.