Think tank calls for ‘managed acceleration’ of automation

Greater automation will bring productivity gains, but without government intervention it could also widen the gap between rich and poor, according to think tank IPPR.

A discussion paper titled Managing automation: Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age says that work will be transformed by automation, not eliminated. Rather than a sudden and rapid elimination of employment, automation is likely to lead to a steady redeployment of labour over a period of decades. The content of most jobs will evolve, changing the nature of work.

What’s more, a “managed acceleration” of automation would help the UK reap the full productivity benefits and enable higher wages, the authors say. An “accelerated trajectory” of automation could raise productivity growth by as much as 1.4% each year, boosting GDP by 10% by 2030.

However, if poorly managed, automation risks increasing inequalities of wealth, income and power, the authors argue. This is because the economic dividends of automation will flow to the owners of technologies and businesses, and the highly skilled, as income shifts from labour to capital and the labour market polarises between high- and low-skilled jobs.

To address this risk, the report calls for a new Authority for the Ethical Use of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence to set out an ethical and regulatory framework governing the use of such technologies.

It also says that new models of capital ownership are needed to make sure everyone benefits from increased automation. Examples include a Citizens’ Wealth Fund that owns a broad portfolio of assets on behalf of the public and pays out a universal capital dividend; greater adoption of employee ownership trusts; and compulsory profit sharing in businesses above a certain size.

Lastly, the report proposes a reduction in working time — pointing out that, as productivity improves, society has the option of taking the benefits not just as higher income but as more time free from work.

“Automation presents an opportunity to reconsider the purpose of work and how we allocate working time,” the authors suggest. “In particular, we believe that the advancing capability of machines should enable us to work better, but less.”

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