Saturday 15 June 2019 2:07 pm

'Ideological war' over future of AI as businesses warn against robot tax

Businesses and trade bodies have urged the government and industry to embrace the rise of robots and better prepare workers and future generations.

The business, energy, and industrial strategy (Beis) committee is in the midst of an inquiry into the automation and the future of work in the UK.

Read more: The robots are coming – and they’re (potentially) after your job

The inquiry has looked into the UK’s readiness for automation, while also exploring whether the government should introduce a robot tax to discourage firms from replacing workers with machines.

Ocado chief technology officer Paul Clarke said an “ideological war” was waging between optimists and dystopians about how an AI future would pan out.

He said the UK needed to strike the right balance between legislation and innovation.

“If we get this balance wrong and unduly subdue our innovation, then countries who prioritise innovation will have the advantage.

“Legislating against a future some may fear could lead to unintended consequences that will leave the UK far behind its international peers.”

Robot tax

Tech UK said a so-called robot tax on companies using AI, as well as scaremongering about the impact of automation, would only serve to deter companies from adopting the technology.

The trade body said businesses needed incentives to boost automation adoption for the UK to remain competitive globally.

“The UK currently has time to get these decisions right, but the increasing adoption of these technologies means the clock is ticking.

It said the country had time to make the right decisions around automation but was being distracted by Brexit.

“Of course, while this is crucial to the future prosperity of the country and its businesses we risk falling behind others in key areas, such as education reform and preparing the population for the fourth industrial revolution – this needs to change,” techUK told the committee.

Last week research by KPMG and recruitment firm Harvey Nash found that as many as one in five financial services sector jobs could be replaced by robots within the next five years.

More than 40 per cent of banks said they expected a fifth or more of their workforce to be replaced by robots, rising to nearly half for insurance companies.

Upskilling the workforce

In responding to the BEIS committee inquiry, automation giant Siemens predicted that two thirds of today’s primary school pupils will eventually work in jobs which do not exist yet.

The German industrial manufacturer said one million UK workers needed to be upskilled in the next five years alone.

A degree course in ‘Control and Automation’ is only available at one university in the country, and Siemens urged the government to “embed” the programme across the country.

“The reality is that low skilled repetitive work is at risk of automation. Yet a lack of digital skills is a real barrier to preventing the country achieving its goal of being a world leader in the fourth industrial revolution powered by automation,” Siemens said.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) called on the government to explore tax incentives for employers to train staff and for workers to re-enter education.

Read more: Financial services jobs at risk amid rise of the robots

“As the world of work transforms, it will be crucial for individuals to upskill in order to adapt to new types of jobs – both the government and business have a role to play in helping workers affected by automation to retrain,” the Institute of Directors said in its response.

“Business leaders already find that skills shortages are affecting their organisations,” it added.

BEIS said the government was working to upskill the current and future workforce through investing £500m to reform the technical education system.

It has also planned a nationwide retraining scheme, starting with digital and construction industries.