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Automation, AI and emerging technologies: Government’s response to BEIS on future of work

22 May 2020

In the wake of the current pandemic, we’ve all experienced how technology can transform our working lives. Whether its video-calling your colleagues, taking part in virtual coffee breaks, or attending events and seminars online.

This is barely scratching the surface of the technology that is, or could soon become, available to workers and businesses. Looking to the future, one of the big topics up for debate is automation. In September 2019, the House of Commons BEIS Committee published a report on automation and the future of work. In February this year, the UK Government published its response and agreed with many of the recommendations set out in the report.

The Government agreed that the adoption of technologies that support automation and other smart technologies will play a crucial role in securing the UK’s future growth and prosperity. It recognised that the UK has the potential to become a global leader in ‘Smart Robotics’ and added that widespread adoption would bring significant benefits in productivity and competitiveness across a number of sectors. The Government referred back to its own evidence to show that robotics deployment through industry results in significant economic and productivity gains.

As well as Smart Robotics, the Government pointed to other emerging technologies that can help to support automation, such as AI. It highlighted a recent study by McKinsey which found that AI could be a significant driver of productivity, adding 22% to GDP by 2030.

But, how will these big ideas become reality? Here we explore some of the Committee’s recommendations and the Government’s response.

World of work

The BEIS Committee recommended that the Government urgently brings together employers, workers, academia and automation developers to design a UK Robot Strategy on how it plans to promote and manage the transition to a more automated world of work.

The Committee recommended that “at a business level, the Government should consider financial incentives for businesses and organisations who invest in learning and development, both for their own employees and for workers more widely. At the national level, the Government should prioritise reskilling to meet the needs of the economy and to ensure demands of new technologies and skills are available to all.”

The Government agreed and noted that any near-term disruption on the workforce needs to be mitigated. It said that it believed reskilling the workforce to meet future needs of the economy was vital. It proposed to prioritise this through establishing a new Skills and Productivity Board (already announced in October 2019) to provide advice on making sure qualifications align with industry need, and also the Get Help to Retrain service.

Barriers for business

One of the big barriers in adoption of automation for UK business is perception. To tackle this, the Government response outlined the measures they are working on to address this. These include a guide to AI in procurement, as well as a guide on public sector use of AI.

The Government also addressed the current regulatory framework for automation in UK business. It considered that the current regulatory environment is working well. Although, it acknowledged that there is likely to be significant pressure on regulators and other public bodies to re-think how they manage automation given how quickly the technology is developing. It highlighted the White Paper on ‘Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, published in June 2019. This sets out the UK’s commitments to supporting innovation and aims to develop an agile approach to regulation.

On the issue of funding, the Government agreed with the Committee’s emphasis on the importance of advice for SMEs to help them realise the productivity benefits from these new technologies. In its response, it pointed to the network of 38 Growth Hubs (backed by £68m in Government funding) which supported over 130,000 businesses in 2018. It added that it was dedicated to making finance markets work better for small businesses.

Key legal issues

There are a number of key issues for businesses to consider when implementing automation or Smart Robotics. Data protection is an obvious one; businesses need to carefully consider what data robots can access and the security measures protecting that data. There may also be employment considerations if the deployment of new technology may create a risk of redundancy or a re-shaping of certain roles. When procuring the technology, there are huge number of contractual issues to consider. These include the contracts between the business and the tech provider, as well as existing contracts the business may have with customers and suppliers. The implementation of automation or Smart Robotics requires careful thought on the position on liability, the rights to use the technology, service levels and availability, and whether there are limits on who can use the technology.

Final thoughts

The Government was undoubtedly keen to show its commitment to keeping pace with its international competitors in the field of automation. Following the release of the Committee’s report last year, it was criticised for its lack of action in this area and called upon to formulate an AI strategy by 2020. Given the current global pandemic, this is unlikely to be at the top of the Government’s agenda over the coming months. However, developing a strategy to tackle automation could help to give the UK economy the productivity boost it needs in light of the current global recession.


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