back to article If Syria pioneered grain processing by watermill in 350BC, the UK in 2019 can do better... right?

The UK government needs to come up with an actual strategy to help businesses and workers take advantage of automation and robotics. So says the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee's inquiry titled "Automation and the Future of Work". The MPs noted that automation had been an issue since …

  1. Chris G Silver badge

    So nothing has changed since I did my government sponsored robotics degree in 1985?

    What kind of creative jobs will displaced workers be looking at and does reduced working hours mean reduced income? After more than thirty years they are still pondering the same questions, amazing.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      What kind of creative jobs will displaced workers be looking at?

      Screwing the tops onto toothpaste tubes?

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      We are actually moving in the other direction.

      20 years ago, if I wanted to wash my car, I would go to Tesco, and pay £6 to use their big automated roller-bush machine thing to wash my car.

      Now, I go to Tesco, and pay £6 to a man with a spray bottle and a cloth to wash my car. The man with a cloth does a much better job of cleaning my car and is far less likely to damage it; and, adjusted for inflation, he is a lot cheaper than the machine.

    3. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      After more than thirty years they are still pondering the same questions, amazing.

      IIRC Keynes started pondering this question in the mid 1940s, so 70+ years and counting.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "After more than thirty years they are still pondering the same questions, amazing."

      Take 11 MP's with no real knowledge or understanding of a topic. Let them ask questions which are then answered by experts or industries wanting investment. Bonus points for being surprised when MP's are only interested in collecting additional money for being on a committee and industry innovation happens independently.

      For a more accurate assessment of what will happen, look at history - systems/processes/techniques created or significantly improved in the UK tend to move to Japan/Korea and eventually China who do things cheaper than they could be done in the UK (the same case can be made for technologies other countries have excelled at - I'm confining this to the UK due to the scope of the subject). Retrofitting existing industries with robots when Japan/Korea/China already have both an advantage in number of robots and a cost advantage as an attempt to keep them competitive will likely result in the investment producing no return. However, there may be social implications that are best addressed by other committees.

      And the solution? Harder of course, particularly for a government sub-committee, but it is innovation. What is the best way to innovate? Investment in R&D and see what happens. The sub-committee could focus on pushing academic and industry interests and trying to allocate more government funding but there is always the tendency to push big initiatives from big organisations that are easier than large numbers of promising small initiatives....

  2. RichardB

    Why the focus on Robots, not power tools?

    Machines, whether physical or informational have been providing automation of tasks for... ever?

    The government is never going to be able to keep pace with businesses on this and for sure education will never even keep up with the government.

    1. overunder Bronze badge

      "...education will never even keep up with the government."

      Education? Lower the bar, try ignorance.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Could it have anything to do with the fact that the UK has been under an economic cloud for years? Firstly we had the economic crash and more recently UK industry - what's left of it - has been under threat of losing most of its home market. Why would anyone resort to capital expenditure when cheap labour needs no long term commitment.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      ...under an economic cloud...

      EVERYTHING is cloud nowadays, recessions included. Even the silver linings have got "Made in China" labels sewn into them.

  4. Filippo

    I don't believe that automation will create as many jobs as it removes.

    I also don't believe that deliberately doing work inefficiently, in order to preserve jobs, can possibly work long-term.

    I do not have any idea as to how to reconcile these issues.

    1. Any other name

      I also don't believe that deliberately doing work inefficiently, in order to preserve jobs, can possibly work long-term.

      I do not know about jobs, but isn't doing your job competently, but well below what you are capable of in extremis, the time-honoured and successful strategy of any professional career? Working flat-out all the time pretty much guarantees a burnout and the subsequent crash ...

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Yes, humans have to work like that. but the machines can work flat out for far longer before crashing and then an identical one wheeled in as a replacement.

        most business models > profit now = good / profit long term = meh

    2. ShadowDragon8685

      Simple. It's a bitter pill that a lot of people don't like to swallow.

      You will simply have to provide meaningful lifestyles for persons who contribute less than those lifestyles cost to the whole economically.

      Get over the "he who shall not work shall not eat" thing, and get over the "I earned mine, why should HE get to have any for doing nothing" mentalities. Let the robots churn faster than ever, and use the fruits of their automated labor to subsidize human life.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Yep - the protestant work ethic is absolutely no good in a world of automation. We will have to adopt a more "from each according to ability, to each according to need" attitude, where the each with ability are more and more the owners of the robots doing the work that humans aren't anymore.

  5. Andy Non Silver badge

    there is little attention given to potential positive aspects such as increases in better and more creative jobs and reductions in working hours.

    Positive aspect for the workers?

    "Great news guys, we are reducing your working hours due to automation. You are still getting the same hourly rate though."

  6. Shadow Systems Silver badge

    At first I thought "What has Apple got to do with waterwheels?"

    Then I character stepped through the headline once again & realized it said Syria not Siri. Ok, no Apples in this story. Phew!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you've seen any Hollywood movies in the last few years you'd swear they've fully automated the process.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      If you've seen any Hollywood movies in the last few years you'd swear they've fully automated the process.

      I thought they'd hired a finite but unbounded number of monkeys.

  8. herman Silver badge
    Devil

    Wild Ass Guesses

    Have they ever figured how many slaves were put out of work by donkeys?

    These committee officials can't even find their own asses (donkeys that is), never mind robots.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Wild Ass Guesses

      Donkeys led by lions; that are just donkeys wearing lion suits.

  9. TRT Silver badge
    1. Symon Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: British Quality

      If we're doing NTNON robot sketches, you forgot this one!

      https://youtu.be/BNPTlT8HXjk

      1. 's water music Silver badge

        Re: British Quality

        Not ntnon, but I am old enough to remember when this would all have been done by skilled craftsmen. Terrifying.

  10. SVV Silver badge

    low pay and worker exploitation make doing it by hand cheaper

    Aka the UK's current industrial strategy. You can have as many strategies, taskforces, seminars and other varieties of "talk is cheap" as you want, but until you have effectively managed and targeted real investment in proven ways of increasing real productivity today, they are all worthless. Cutting investment to save money, always costs you more in the long run than investing wisely and maintaining those investments. "Randomly shoving arbitrary millions at "AI" because you think it makes you look cool and cutting edge doesn't cut the mustard.

    As for the "worries about jobs being lost to automation", read any book about the economic and social development of the world since the industrail revolution if you need to understand the basic issues involved. My favourite story involves a workers reperesentative complaining about how a new steam powered excavator was taking work away from his men :

    "If it wasn't for the excavator, I could have 50 of my men here with shovels".

    "If it wasn't for your shovels, you could have 500 of your men here with spoons".

  11. Bendacious

    Open University

    Free life-long education for everyone. Let's kill the notion that education ends when you get your first job. Barry is losing his driving job because of self-driving trucks but he can't fulfil his burning ambition to become a social-media marketing executive. He just can't risk putting his family tens of thousands of pounds in debt at such an uncertain time. Barry ends up in a McJob and the world is deprived of his idea for getting 'influencers' to take vows of silence to advertise Abbot Ale.

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: Open University

      Read to the end. Was not disappointed.

      1. 's water music Silver badge

        Re: Open University

        shut up and post the kickstarter url

    2. hammarbtyp Silver badge

      Re: Open University

      Definitely. Works in places like Finland

      With retirement age increasing and technology change increasing the idea that the job you train for when 18 will be around when your 67 (or when ever) has never been a more idiotic fallacy. So what is the government doing about it? Huge cuts in adult education and rules like you can only be funded for one degree in your lifetime which means mature students numbers have dropped to virtually nil (unless there is a bursary like for some teaching)

      Even the open university comes under the same rules now, which means you need about 30,000 to complete a OU degree

      1. MonkeyCee Silver badge

        Re: Open University

        "Works in places like Finland"

        Or Germany. Or Scotland, for your first degree anyway.

        It's almost like education (and property) in the UK is deliberately used to stratify and impoverish society, and that wasn't working well enough, so they kept upping tuition.

        Personally I went for the Netherlands. 2k per year tuition, courses taught in English.

    3. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Open University

      More importantly the government loses out on more taxes in a year on his Soc-Med-ME salary (let alone the extra VAT from his purchases) than it would have cost to educate him.

  12. codejunky Silver badge

    Ha

    "The UK government needs to come up with an actual strategy to help businesses and workers take advantage of automation and robotics."

    Wouldnt that be- back off and stay out of the way? Government cant keep up with technology nor should it be expected to. If it is worth automating it will be done, otherwise it isnt worth it. As McDonald's has shown (after gov ramps up labour costs) automation will be applied where it is profitable. Hence worth it.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Ha

      One wonders if business and workers will come up with a strategy to help UK Government take advantage of automation and robotics?

      I reckon they could do with a helping hand - they're totally stuck over this Brexit thing, it seems. I'm sure there's an AI solution... hang on... scratch that; intelligence, artificial or otherwise, is not a requirement for MPs.

    2. batfink Silver badge

      Re: Ha

      I think there is a role for government here, but maybe not in the way they're thinking.

      Yes, businesses will automate where it's profitable or removes impediments. However, as has been discussed ad nauseum in these hallowed pages, this doesn't happen in isolation. There may be impacts to society at large, such as increased unemployment or income for citizens, resulting in reduced government income and therefore reduced services, or higher taxes for those who can still afford them. As an example, I don't believe that Payroll Tax applies to robots (yet), so each time a human worker is replaced by a robot one, less tax goes to our esteemed government, so they start eyeing up my pay packet.

      Also at a wider level, education outcomes may need to change to cope with different requirements and expectations. This is not a problem that's going to be addressed by the businesses busy automating - although Dyson in the UK have actually been funding engineering places to provide for their own requirements. At least, they were doing that until they decided to pack up and move to Singapore, where the education system is better suited to their needs.

      So, governments need to deal with these wider implications. So, yes, there needs to be a strategy. Whether any UK government is competent enough to deliver one is another question entirely.

      As for your "governments ramping up labour costs" - you may wish to pursue this line of your thinking to its logical conclusion. There's a word for free labour.

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: Ha

        @batfink

        "such as increased unemployment or income for citizens"

        Which isnt happening. Instead we have full employment and greater incomes (globally we are really ridiculously rich).

        "resulting in reduced government income and therefore reduced services"

        Except government has been increasing its take of income in a rich country which is growing. Unions stopping automated trains cost more and paying high wages for a job that doesnt require such a large wage reduces government funds because they pay more for reduced services.

        "As an example, I don't believe that Payroll Tax applies to robots (yet), so each time a human worker is replaced by a robot one, less tax goes to our esteemed government, so they start eyeing up my pay packet."

        Unfortunately that is the common misunderstanding. We have full employment, so that doesnt work. We have a net migration of people into the country and full employment and additional automation thanks to the 'living wage' rubbish.

        What we have is automation being more productive and people going off and doing other things. That means money from the increased productivity and those ex workers doing something else and paying tax. We are not all sitting about doing nothing now we have automated and improved agriculture. Nor manufacturing. We wouldnt have the smart phone or even the phone at all if we didnt increase productivity and get out of the field.

        "Also at a wider level, education outcomes may need to change to cope with different requirements and expectations."

        It already has. We have an education. We do primary and secondary + kids clubs and kindergarten and more because we are a rich country. In large parts of the world they work in a field or work in a manufacturing plant. We have taken it so far that university has been opened up to everyone.

        "This is not a problem that's going to be addressed by the businesses busy automating"

        Of course it is. Kids can probably teach computing classes better than the teachers because devices are so cheap and disposable (again we are rich) that even poor kids have these toys to play with. Food used to be a majority expense for a household and is now a much smaller part of the average wage. It used to be practically everything in peasantry.

        "So, governments need to deal with these wider implications"

        This is where I am not convinced that government can adapt. Look at the mess they make in education. They try to direct and it causes problems. We need them for some things but for a lot they need to back away.

        "As for your "governments ramping up labour costs" - you may wish to pursue this line of your thinking to its logical conclusion. There's a word for free labour."

        Cool. Just as there is free NHS, free welfare, free school, free allsorts to be honest and if automation is dragging costs down to practically nothing then everyone can afford it. We are not yet there though. Full employment and plenty of things we want now and in the future.

        Its like the story of an economist visiting a poor country, witnessed a public-works project that had people making a road with picks and shovels. When he asked why they did not use earth-moving machines instead, a local official responded that the goal was to provide people with jobs. In that case, the economist asked, why not just have the workers use spoons instead?

        Are we better off with the road or a load of people standing around but being given money? Which one makes money and which one costs?

  13. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

    ... worse service for consumers and higher profit margins for the corporations.

    1. BazNav

      Re: "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

      I for one quite like being able to go to a cash machine and get money out at 2am on a Sunday morning to pay for a kebab rather than going home hungry because the humans don't get in to work until 9am on Monday morning.

      1. Korev Silver badge

        Re: "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

        Or to transfer money without posting a cheque

      2. katrinab Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

        I rather like using using my card to pay for my kebab so I don't have to transport cash around the place.

        1. BrownishMonstr

          Re: "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

          I rather like using my phone to pay for my kebab so I don't have to transport my card around the place.

        2. TRT Silver badge

          Re: "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

          I rather like using cash to pay for my kebab because I don't see any reason to give anyone in the back of a silver van in a lay-by potential access to my entire bank account, card details, PIN etc. to settle a debt of a few quid.

  14. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    "automation in retail and banking had led to fewer jobs..."

    ... as well as worse customer service and higher profit margins.

    Just an observation...

  15. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Nothing to worry about in reality

    After all the government just replaced a robot with an unskilled worker.

  16. hammarbtyp Silver badge

    One point to make is that places like Germany have increased automation to offset the high costs of labour, unlike the UK where they have used a combination of zero hours and immigrant labour to do the same job. As a result UK productivity is low compared to most of europe

    As an example. in the UK we have loads of hand car wash places. In Germany it is automated. UK PLC just don't want to invest if they can just employ cheap drones

    With UK industry based on access to cheap labour It will be interesting to see how UK firms cope with reduction of legal immigration. My guess, like a junkie coming off their fix, it will not be pretty, requiring huge investment in automation at the time when margins are being squeezed or instead companies with a international presence will just offshore production to sites where the investment has already occurred

  17. sal II

    Corn in Syria?

    "Syrians started using water wheels to grind corn in about 350BC"

    I always thought it was some Italian dude was the first to visit the Americas in circa 1507AD, how did the Syrians get their hands on corn 2000 years earlier? Aliens?

    1. disgruntled yank Silver badge

      Re: Corn in Syria?

      You are amaized?

      "Corn" is simply the staple crop of a region--"maize", "Indian corn", whatever, in the Americas, commonly wheat in Europe.

  18. DougS Silver badge

    Over 60% are at "medium risk" of robots?

    That pretty much assumes an AI capable of human level language understanding, to eliminate all customer facing positions from call centers to cashiers to receptionists to salespeople. While the common man probably thinks we are closing in on that because you can ask your phone a question and sometimes get a meaningful response, that's miles away from being able to handle a complex conversational interaction like someone calling customer service to resolve a billing dispute. We are nowhere near this! Which is a good thing, because it will be the biggest challenge political systems have faced since the Magna Carta.

    Since the "service industry" is what replaced so many manufacturing jobs after they were displaced by a combination of automation and offshoring (after that industry replaced so many agricultural jobs after automation and consolidation displaced those) the effect of the service industry jobs being replaced by automation, which is what they're talking about here, is a huge risk simply because we don't know what those people will be doing next.

    It is fine to say "oh this has been worried about before and there have always been jobs for those people" but it is far less clear what they'll be doing next than it was in the past. They can't all become "robot repairmen" even if you could wave a magic wand and give them all the necessary knowledge and training, that would only provide jobs for a few percent.

    So what is 50% of the population going to do when there are no longer jobs for them? A "robot tax" as some have proposed is silly, because what's a robot? Is a water wheel for grain a "robot", since it displaces workers? How much tax does its owner owe, and for that matter how much tax do you owe on your PC/printer which displaces the work of a private secretary, typesetter, printer, accountant, etc.

    Once we get a true general AI that allows "robots" to replace people in customer facing situations, society is going to need to evolve. Capitalism will no longer work, we'll have to find something better (and socialism and communism have been tried many times and never succeeded without the iron boot of a central government to enforce it, so let's hope that's not the "answer" to this dilemma)

  19. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    ...oh no... there will be fewer jobs for foreigners

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