We’re in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – driverless cars, virtual assistants and the gig economy are only a glimpse of what is still to come. Perhaps unsurprisingly, coverage of technological change is often pessimistic and focused on machines ‘taking our jobs’. And we can indeed already see some areas where this kind of displacement is taking place – in supermarkets, airports and banks – to name a few.
But why are we so afraid of the future? Why is that the talk of the implications of artificial intelligence is about our soon-to-be robot overlords and mass unemployment, instead of the opportunities new technology presents? After all, AI will improve the lives of both consumers and entrepreneurs immeasurably.
The applications of AI are manifold, from managing complex supply chains, to virtual assistants freeing up our time for tasks that require a human touch. In healthcare we see the Rhodes Artificial Intelligence Lab diagnosing kids with sleep apnea and predicting, and preventing, heart attacks. Engineers, architects and doctors are all delivering more, quicker, thanks to the wonders of modern tech.
With efficiency improvements – and as AI enables more budding tech entrepreneurs to enter into competitive markets – standards are shooting up and prices are going down. A key trend we are seeing as the Fourth Industrial Revolution emerges is the development of tech-enabled platforms that disrupt existing industries, by providing a better, quicker and safer service for less money or less hassle.
The taxi industry is a good example. For all Uber’s perceived faults (read: government’s failure to properly regulate), it has made life safer for revellers, quicker for the businessperson and reduced the hassle for the consumer. Lyft, Uber’s closest competitor, pays its drivers better and typically has lower surge rates. The technological nature of their platforms means that companies like Uber and Lyft can perform where black cabs can’t; they track drivers to improve passenger safety and are accessible from the most remote locations.
You would think that by now we would have learned our lesson from history. We have no idea what new jobs will be created by the next industrial revolution and so we tend to worry about the dangers to society and not embrace the possibilities, but if we can combine the AI revolution with sound and sensible policies which protects the most vulnerable, we have little to worry about and everything to gain.
New industries should have limited, but sensible, regulation to ensure entrepreneurs can make Britain a world leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution while protecting workers. The welfare system will have to adapt to a new world in order to protect the unfortunate, but inevitable, losers of technological innovation. We should start considering a Universal Basic Income as a genuine political necessity and not just a wacky fringe idea, in order to decide how we can make it work.
Big Tech should of course be reminded of its social responsibilities and we should do our best to close tax loopholes, but badly thought-out policies such as the new Digital Services Tax will do nothing but harm small, entrepreneurial firms and help Facebook, Google and Amazon to monopolise. By hurting business we hurt consumers who will inevitably feel the brunt of new corporation taxes which are passed on to the customer and the employee.
In the very-near future, technological innovation will mean a supply-side miracle. Costs of transportation and communication will go through the floor – and the costs of trade will drop. This means cheaper prices, better products and a lower cost of living for you and me, and higher revenue for businesses.
It is time for us to stop thinking of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as robots, big data and zero privacy. Rather, we should think of it in terms of lower costs, easier lives, and a much improved standard of living. I, for one, will welcome our socially responsible, sensibly regulated, robot overlords.