Standing in the Lewisham Conservative Association’s offices, while making my pitch to be the GLA candidate last year, I broached the subject of banning all diesel vehicles by 2021 and encouraging the creation of a technology hub in South East London. My argument was that electric vehicles and digitisation will completely transform London in the next 5 years and without taking action, people and the environment would be left behind.
I was asked “what does that mean for a local worker and their diesel van or someone who is working as a taxi driver?”. Rather directly, I answered “I’d be telling them to re-skill and look at the way they use vehicles, because taxi drivers are going to be non-existent in 5 years’ time due to automated cars. Also, no-one will own cars anymore. You’ll simply order one up on your phone with an app, and an electric car will arrive to take you to your job”. Some of the responses were interesting; one or two were nodding in agreement at the front, and one older member at the back of the room said “well, isn’t technology amazing!”.
We remain in Britain wholly unprepared for the digital, robotic and automated revolution. While London taxi drivers cry out for Uber to be banned or more tightly regulated, the taxi industry is moving towards completely driverless vehicles. The ‘Uber generation’ recognise that the one weak element of the service is the human driver in the loop, who is prone to errors or being rude. Automated vehicles are quick, safe and most importantly, cheap. They’re not even future technology; some are here already, as seen in the Tesla car. Digital security is constantly underestimated and is the most in-demand skill for companies, reflecting the huge risk to their business when they are hacked. If you question that statement, simply look at the share price plunge of TalkTalk and their loss of customers as a result of their hack. The lack of skills in Internet of Things, building networks and big data analytics is a national crisis.
We should therefore create a department for Digital, Robotics and Automation and designate a dedicated minister to ensure Britain is not only prepared for the Robotic age but also leading the world in this designing, building and delivering this technology. It is this lack of automation which leaves Britain’s productivity per head behind countries such as Norway, USA and even France.
The best example of being unprepared comes in the way we approach defence. Defence has invested monstrous amounts of money in programmes such as the Joint Strike Fighter and massive aircraft carriers, both of which are looking to already be outdated and rendered redundant thanks to drone swarming technology. The obsession of keeping humans in the loop within these devices, means we have extremely expensive systems which can be defeated by cheap swarms of small vehicles. A US Navy wargame called Millennium Challenge 2002 showed how low-tech swarms can defeat an advanced force. The Red forces, led by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of the US fleet. In a pre-emptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. Another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small boats carrying out suicide attacks that capitalised on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected. In 2002 drones didn’t exist to the level they do now. Now, drones can act without human intervention, can swarm where necessary and can act independently or as a group. By 2025 and 2030, AI and drones will render JSF and the carrier force completely redundant.
At the same time, investment has suffered in parts of defence that need human interaction, such as in counter-insurgency campaigns, where low tech is the best method. This is all being driven by government departments, civil servants and leaders who simply do not understand the pace of technological change, and are biased and/or uninformed in their views on how we should be supporting research and investment.
Robotics, digitisation and automation bring huge opportunities for a social revolution in Britain. For example, farmers are already using robots and automated vehicles to be more efficient. John Deere offer farmers driverless tractors which, by using a 3D Robotics autonomous system and GPS, can automatically bring in a harvest and move grain. This reduces human error and overlap by 90%. This means for £63,000 you can get 24-hour farming.
At the same time, such things could cause irreparable damage. The role of humans in driving or farming jobs, for example, is one area in which we could find a whole raft of low and non-skilled jobs disappearing (though I’d never dare call farming-low skilled, driving and harvesting is in relative terms). But let’s not forget that white collar and extremely highly skilled jobs could go the same way. Surgeons are perhaps the most likely victims of this, with highly precise robotic instruments able to carry out surgery to a much greater degree of accuracy than any human could. Once you add in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which will allow these surgical machines (and other technology for different jobs) to self-improve, learn and share experiences as fast as they can analyse the results of the surgery, you’ll quite quickly find the human method of learning these skills over 20 years out-dated. Not just redundant in fact; archaic.
Considering middle-class professions are most at risk of automation with artificial intelligence, digitisation isn’t just a risk to low-income workers, most of whom have been the most responsive and adaptive to changes in employment by taking up zero hour contracts and flexible working with companies such as Uber and Deliveroo (though we know this employment has risks). Professions need to be better prepared for digitisation and robotics; this will involve reskilling of some of our best-trained and educated people if they are to remain in work.
A department for Digital, Robotics and Automation, working horizontally across all other government departments, would show Britain is serious about its technological future. Because I can assure you, the robots are coming. This is an opportunity for Britain to lead a global high tech revolution.