The ambitions in the Industrial Strategy are lofty and far reaching.
Positioning the UK at the cutting edge of the artificial intelligence and data revolution, clean growth, and driverless cars, and developing the technology needed to support an ageing society.
These big ambitions are rightly imbued with the excitement and promise of technological advance. They look forward to a ‘smart’, connected, defiantly digital world.
The Industrial Strategy also builds people in as one of its foundations.
It's about improving people’s skills, helping them access good jobs, supporting whole-life wellbeing and delivering more opportunities.
Anti-AI narrative needs challenging
To many people though, the Industrial Strategy brings with it grave concerns about not only their own jobs and careers, but of their children too.
To many, the skills apparently needed to deliver on the government’s vision seem unfathomable. Advanced coding, engineering, robotics – all highly technical, all requiring expert and ongoing training as technology continues to develop at a feverish pace.
These concerns are valid, and they are understandable, fed by a dystopian public narrative across media that gloomily prophesises robot takeover and human decline.
This narrative should be challenged, and the implications better understood.
The need for human skills
Research by the London School of Economics (LSE) shows that as automation and AI changes the jobs market, “human” skills are going to be more necessary than ever.
Decision-making, leadership, data analysis, creativity, empathy – areas where AI simply cannot compete.
This conclusion came through clearly in my own work for the European Commission, which underlines the importance of taking seriously the need for soft skills in the labour market, and policies which can deliver these skills.
LSE’s researchers are also grappling with how the government, businesses and communities should best prepare people of all ages for the future of work.
From incorporating resilience training and inter-disciplinary thinking into the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education curriculum, to building skills training into communities, and demystifying AI, there are multiple policy strands that the government must consider to build skills and tackle misconceptions about the future of work.
Skills and education
It is well accepted that soft skills are more malleable over the life course as compared to hard skills. My recent work with Professor Alistair McGuire suggests that soft skills can certainly be changed within a secondary school setting.
This conclusion was drawn when we evaluated Healthy Minds, an evidenced-based four-year programme for secondary school students designed by Lord Richard Layard and colleagues in 2011.
Given the speed of technological change, the time is right to consider incorporating structured education on soft skills into schooling at all levels.
This will support much-welcome focus on good mental health, and ensure that the next generation of workers are skill-ready for the labour market, with the resilience to adapt to change, in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution.
Understanding the Impact of Change
It is understandable that people are concerned about the future, and robust evidence is needed to understand the affects AI could have on people.
LSE research has looked at the winners and losers from automation in the job market in terms of job security and earned income, speaking directly to policies regarding the stock of skills.
Findings suggest a need to move away from focusing on how the average person is affected, towards evaluating across demographics and other key identifiers.
For example, my research for the Low Pay Commission illustrates that while minimum wages increases in the UK have had only a modest effect in eroding automatable job opportunities for low skilled workers over the last three decades, effects for older workers have been far more substantial.
Protecting older workers
My research found larger effects, both on average and for older workers, in the US (jointly with David Neumark) where employment protection for low skilled workers is lower.
Overall, this body of work suggests that low-skilled individuals who rely on automatable work are vulnerable to their job disappearing quicker because of minimum wage increases.
This unintended consequence needs to be monitored and mitigated against. It is likely that older, low-skilled workers could be the biggest losers in such transitions, if they do not get as many opportunities to retrain and learn new skills.
It is also possible that we will end up with fewer jobs as automation continues, and serious consideration needs to be given to what this means and how we plan for the future.
While jobs that have been lost in the past have been replaced, we should not be complacent about the future.
Replacement becomes less likely as machines continue to learn and minimum wages put pressure on companies already operating in highly competitive environments to substitute workers for technologies.
Policy making for the future
So, there is a key role for policy in the ongoing monitoring of these trends and to consider how the rents earned by machines should be captured and redistributed within society if technology adoption accelerates to a point where too many jobs have disappeared.
Politicians and policy makers are right to focus on people as being at the heart of the Industrial Strategy.
Human skills will always be needed, and robust social science evidence must continue to play a key role in policy development if the UK is to remain at the cutting edge of technological advancement while rightly prioritising healthy and productive lives.