LORD PRIOR, the politician responsible for the UK’s industrial strategy, has warned of the social consequences of the coming fourth industrial revolution.
Speaking to a meeting of experts in synthetic biology in London on Monday, he explained that the government’s industrial strategy and latest budget is pushing for research into technologies including artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
These technologies, along with machine learning, the internet of things and novel production routes thorough the likes of synthetic biology are often grouped under the term Industry 4.0, and they pose big social risks he explained.
“I want to address the consequences of some of the technical change that is happening, whether it is in synthetic biology or other areas,” he said to delegates of the SynBioBeta conference meeting at Imperial College London. “Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, said last week that 18m existing jobs in the UK could be at threat to new technologies; 80m in the US.”
“If we don’t address the social consequences of that then we are all not fulfilling our duty of trying to create a decent, fair and good society.”
Lord Prior acknowledged that while technological breakthroughs increase productivity, the resulting wealth does not flow evenly through society, and that the situation is getting worse.
“The top 0.01% of the US took 3% of total income in 1995; they now take 6% of national income. So we’re seeing this very marked growth in inequality.”
He said that this inequality has left people behind and was a key reason why people have voted for Brexit and elected Donald Trump.
“The metropolitan liberal elite, of which I and most people in this room I suspect are a member, have sat pretty idly by while this has happened. I worked for British Steel during the 1980s and I went back to Redcar on Teesside a couple of weeks ago. If you stand on Redcar, where in 1985 we had 15,000 full-time people working, you could look over the river and see the old Wilton petrochemical works of ICI, that at its height employed 30,000 people. That’s 45,000 people in two companies on Teesside.”
The employment at those sites is now just 5,000 he said.
“You have to ask yourself what has happened to those people, and their families and all the suppliers of ICI and British Steel. I think the truth is that many of those people who would, had they stayed in those industries making £30,000–40,000 (US$37,500-50,000) per year … are now probably earning £7.50 an hour in a service industry.”
“So it is this inequality that we need to address. It goes to the heart of the kind of society that most of us want to live in developing these new technologies of the future. We have to take people with us. We can’t leave them behind.”
Government measures to soften the coming changes include a focus on technical skills. Lord Prior pointed to the £500m budgeted for 15 new technical qualifications, known as T-Levels, and £170m earmarked for seven new institutes of technology.
Quoting from Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT faculty member and author of The Second Machine Age, Lord Prior said: “Our one confident prediction is that digital technologies will bring the world into an era of more wealth and abundance and less drudgery and toil. But there’s no guarantee that everyone will share in the bounty, and that leaves many people justifiably apprehensive. The outcome – shared prosperity or increasing inequality – will be determined not by technologies but by the choices we make as individuals, organisations, and societies.”
Pointing to the unfulfilled promise of GM crops, he said it was essential that government and experts help win the argument for why the public should embrace these coming technologies for the betterment of wider society.
“We can’t stand idly by and blame people for being luddites if they quite reasonably object to seeing their way of life and their employment disappearing. If we don’t recognise that we are back to the 1980s when we stood there and watched great swathes of industry disappear and did very little about it. And we are now reaping the political rewards of that kind of policy.”
“So I think it is beholden on us – those of us in industry and politics to make the argument but recognise we have to be sympathetic and ensure that those people who lose out to these new technologies are treated properly.”
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