A commons committee report released today has dragged the British government over the coals for failing to strategically think or act on the significant impact advances in technology will have on civic life. It begs the question: big business is taking these questions seriously, so why isn’t the government?

Bizarrely, some quarters of the press meet a willingness to discuss the enormous social upheavals en route with a level of cynicism – for example, a fringe meeting at the recent Labour party conference was derided for making automation its central issue.

Image: A 20th century American receives a martini from a replicator in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Image: A 20th century American receives a martini from a replicator in Star Trek: The Next Generation

The fact that the panel existed is significant in some ways, but even that talk (supported by a less-than-enthusiastic Chuka Umunna making radio appearances to talk about it) was what it was, a fringe event.

Today’s Committee report treads carefully itself. While recognising that artificial intelligence and automation has the potential for an enormous transformational impact on society, the report cautiously notes that we are a long way off from an automated world or – to use the interim chair Dr Tania Mathias’ comments – far from the world as seen in Star Wars (but curiously not Star Trek).

But technology moves fast. Consider that it was only decades, not centuries, from the first manned aircraft to entering space, the emergence of the silicon chip, the democratising force of the internet, and we are on the cusp, objectively, of the next technologically-led societal shifts to come.

Of course, technology transforming society is nothing new – indeed, it’s an effective way to chart the course of human progress. From the cotton gin through to Britain’s industrial revolution, the key questions are about efficiency, control and power: technology is apolitical, a tool, and it can ease the burdens of human labour or increase them, depending on who it is wielded by and for which purposes

Academia and business is ahead on this by miles compared to the UK government, and other countries – some close, some far – are taking action too. Germany undertook a comprehensive review of the power of automation technology, the smart city, and so forth, and went ahead with a programme called Industry 4.0 which intends to level these technologies for the civic good. South Korea is set to spend half a billion dollars on robotics investments. 

Factories in China are embracing automation wholeheartedly and billions are being spent fitting them with robotics, delivering us the products we take for granted. The enormous Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn – where the infamous Apple worker suicides took place – committed years ago to bringing robotics into play. From a business perspective it makes complete sense. From the perspective of society, there are a great deal of unknown unknowns, and we will have to figure it out along the way.

So although the Conservative government is keen to appear progressive on technology, this report is particularly damning. Although it has committed to delivering driverless convoys on some roads in the UK, much of Britain’s basic internet connectivity is languishing. And there are no answers, no noises at all, on just how much society will change when even service work is automated out of existence. It is tempting to assume – given the government’s horrific track record on basic worker’s rights – that it does not particularly care.

The commandant of a military academy in the Simpsons episode ‘The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson’ said: “The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”

And there is truth to it, not just in war, but in every area of life. Manufacturing giant General Electric created a digital wing specifically to target the enormous marketplace for robotics analytics and maintenance, and high-level executives have previously gone on the record to say that there will certainly be jobs displaced. In other ways they can be complementary, and jobs will exist to engineer and build these products. But it is inarguably true that there will be “winners and losers”, as GE Digital’s CEO Bill Ruh told Techworld earlier this year.

For a company that was once associated with affordable off-the-shelf PCs, Dell too has publicly gone on record to say that technology is transforming society at an incredible pace. Michael Dell opened the EMC conference in Las Vegas earlier this year by saying precisely that – and he insisted it is Dell that will be the company making all the infrastructure work.

Similarly, every object on the planet can now be turned from ‘dumb’ to ‘smart’ with the addition of sensors, all managed through analytics software. Companies are racing to win the arms race in the so-called Internet of Things space, because they know that every vertical market on the planet is now opening up to technology in a way that’s at least as profound as the emergence of the internet, perhaps even more so.

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On a level that’s easier to digest, just look at the rise of the gig-economy apps like Uber and Airbnb, who own nothing and yet dominate world markets, and wield incredible power.

To leave these enormous responsibilities solely up to big business – which, after all, is driven by profit above everything else – has the potential to be vastly damaging. The culpability lies in society as a whole, not the erratic nature of the market.

We should welcome the calls for a Commission on Artificial Intelligence at the Alan Turing Institute, and everything else in today’s Select Committee report. But these questions cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside or turn to tokenistic, wonkish institutions with no teeth at all.

If big business is taking it as seriously as this, why aren’t we all?

Perhaps it is time to put the sneering aside and engage in some real big-picture thinking. The world of today is technologically very different to 15 years ago, and it is beyond naive to think there aren’t more dramatic changes to come.

The enormous transformational potential of technology is just beginning to manifest itself on the horizon, and if this isn’t met with an enthusiastic but thoughtful response, nationally and internationally, the seismic changes have the potential to act as the catalyst for catastrophe. 

And that would be a true tragedy, because instead it could be used to realise the utopian ideals of the best of the optimistic science fiction – a world which hopes to emulate the peaceful people and post-scarcity society of Star Trek, not Star Wars.