From the TUC

How fast is technological change happening?

25 Jan 2017, by in Economics

This is the first in a series of blogs considering the extent of robotisation and its impact. In a lecture at the TUC in November 2015, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist to the Bank of England said that “we may be on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution”.

Clearly, the use of technology is not new. However, robots, digital technology, automation and the application of artificial intelligence (AI), for example in medicine, 3D printing and driver-less cars, which are now being tested in public, are meaning that there is a heightened level of debate about the impact of new technology.

In these blogs I have used ‘robotisation’, ‘automation’, AI (RAAI systems) and ‘digitisation’ interchangeably, unless particularly specified. However, they are in fact particular aspects of technological change.

  • Robotisation and automation can be thought of as the use of technology to carry out physical tasks formerly carried out by humans – for example in manufacturing.
  • Digitisation is the conversion of text, pictures, or sound into a digital form that can be processed by a computer.
  • Artificial Intelligence might be thought of as the use of technology to carry out intellectual tasks formerly carried out by humans. The White House Counsel of Economic Advisers says that “There is no single definition of AI that is universally accepted by practitioners. Some define AI loosely as a computerized system that exhibits behavior that is commonly thought of as requiring intelligence. Others define AI as a system capable of rationally solving complex problems or taking appropriate actions to achieve its goals in whatever real world circumstances it encounters”.

The Council for Science and Technology say that “RAAI systems are interconnected, interactive, cognitive and physical tools, able to variously perceive their environments, reason about events, make or revise plans and control their own actions”.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

It has been argued that these new forms of technology are leading to a Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industrial Revolution 4.0.

A House of Commons Library briefing says the Industrial Revolution 4.0 is:

“characterised by increased automation of working practices, effecting both low and middle skill jobs, greater connectivity, machine learning and developments in new and emerging technologies, occurring considerably faster than in preceding industrial revolutions”.

Current debates about the impact of technology on jobs and work are fuelled by advances in modern computing. This is unlike technological discussions of the past. As Andy Haldane sets out, the relationship between jobs and technology in the US in the 1930s and 1960s, and 1980s and 1990s UK, were prompted by unemployment.

Is robotisation happening in the UK?

Automated technology is increasingly being used world-wide. Robots are becoming cheaper and more skilled. Since 2013 China has bought more industrial robots each year than any other country including high-tech Germany, Japan and South Korea. However China still has a long way to go to make up the difference in terms of robots per manufacturing worker. Interestingly, robots are increasingly being used in Singapore and Japan due to an ageing population and resulting shrinking workforce.

In the UK, debates about whether technology will lead to job losses are taking place at a time when we have record employment rates. Yet we also have low skilled, low wage jobs and the prospect of a potential squeeze on wages. Some have argued that this means we need to invest more in technology to boost productivity but compared to other countries, there is only a slow shift towards digitisation in the UK.

The Government Office for Science says the UK is a world leader in the science behind AI since Alan Turing. However, according to the Council for Science and Technology “the UK compares poorly internationally for robot density per worker”.

A 2014 survey of robotic density conducted by the International Federation of Robotics, placed the UK in last place after 20 other countries.


Further reading:

This is the first in a series of blogs considering the extent of robotisation and its impact. Also read:

2 Responses to How fast is technological change happening?

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    Jan 26th 2017, 8:39 am

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