Nick Fletcher the Tory MP for Don Valley, led a Westminster Hall debate in which he warned the Government must prepare to mitigate some of the negative effects of AI as well as utilising its benefits.
He said: “While some of these technologies may seem far off, they have already taken over many unskilled low-paid jobs. After all, it was not that long ago that we ordered McDonald’s coffee in person. Then, one day we were met with a giant screen. Personally, knowing full well the implications of that over time, I deliberately went to the counter and ordered my coffee in person to protect people’s jobs.
“I did so until one day when the counter was not manned and a nice lady stood next to the giant iPad and said, ‘Come on. Use this’. Now, every time I go to McDonald’s, I use the giant screen. The nice lady has gone. That is the crux of the issue. AI technology is often introduced to aid the pre-existing workforce. Yet, just like McDonald’s, managers eventually realise that their workforce can be replaced wholesale, and the AI technology is what is left—doing what humans were doing, but doing it better.”
He said this could soon have implications for gardening businesses and even in schools.
“While many people find gardening a chore, our desire to keep pristine gardens means that the gardening and landscape business can employ 160,000 people. Yet, as those people retire they are likely to be replaced by artificial intelligence technology as it becomes more capable, because employers will not be liable to provide sickness pay or holidays. AI can cut grass; how long before it can cut hedges and pick soft fruits?
“Throughout Covid, we have seen the classroom change too. Am I saying that we should remove the teacher? Of course not, but with the rise of AI will we always need teaching assistants, administrative staff or examination boards? I do not know the answer, but it is essential that we start asking these questions.”
Issue 'could affect millions of jobs'
He added it was time to have a “frank and honest discussion” in Government about the implications of AI technology.
“The rise of AI technology is likely to decimate people’s jobs. I have heard it said, 'Well, people have threatened that before', and looking at the unemployment figures we see that Britain had some of the lowest unemployment figures ever before the pandemic. However, this new AI revolution will be different from the industrial revolution when it comes to employment,” he said.
“As a result of the massive expansion of AI in many sectors, AI will affect many people’s lives and pretty much every job sector. AI will infiltrate everything, everywhere. And just as with internet algorithms, we will all be willing participants. Will it happen overnight? No. It will take time. As I have already alluded to, there has been increasing use of AI for many years. However, the gradual rise of this technology means that policy makers, the Government and the public are not aware of its creeping challenges. Little by little, we as a society are becoming more dependent on it, and little by little it is making life’s many tasks more manageable.
“So, which jobs will be affected and—more importantly—when? Let us start with jobs in call centres and fast food restaurants, as well as driving jobs, which, yes, means every taxi driver, every delivery driver and every HGV driver. In total, that amounts to over 600,000 people. Warehouse workers, shop assistants, postal workers, parking attendants — the figure for all those jobs is over three million people.
“If that was it and the list did not expand further into security, education, health and defence, I am confident that a forward-thinking Conservative Government could manage such economic stresses. Yet even when we are discussing the jobs that are most at risk, we must remember that employees in such jobs are often younger people, so our young people’s future is most at risk. One of my biggest beliefs is that the devil makes work for idle hands and the worst idle hands are young ones. A young person with no job often believes that they have no value. Although that is not true by any stretch of the imagination, we cannot have an entirely new generation of young people thinking it about themselves.”
He added: “If we have learned anything about the levelling-up agenda, it is that people in places such as Don Valley want to have jobs that provide value and meaning to their lives. Let there be no mistake: unless we sufficiently equip huge numbers of our workforce over the coming years, many will never secure work, let alone skilled, meaningful work. Getting this right is key to the Government maximising the impact of their levelling-up agenda.
"A good start may be establishing a new college in Don Valley that specialises in coding. I say to the Minister, let our economic revolution begin in Doncaster."
South Yorkshire 'already leading the way'
Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman said the Government sees the UK as a global leader in developing AI technology and related jobs.
“We have been making concerted efforts to improve the skills pipeline, not just to ensure that those high-technology skills are there but to ensure that all have an opportunity to participate in this economy.
“That is why we have increasingly focused on reskilling and upskilling – so that, where there is a level of displacement, there is redeployment rather than unemployment.
“South Yorkshire is quite a powerhouse in AI, with Sheffield University. There are 16 sectors for doctoral training in AI across the country, of which Sheffield is one, training 1,000 more PhDs. There is the Sheffield centre specialising in speech and language technologies—an area where the university has long pre-eminence. Like so much of the UK, South Yorkshire is in the process of reinventing itself and its economy, and I have every confidence that it will do it as well as everywhere else, not least because of Sheffield Robotics, a leading company and employer in that region.
“Sheffield’s advanced manufacturing research centre currently offers more than 300 apprenticeship places to local jobseekers in the AI sector, so there is a lot to be proud of and confident of in the region. We are also seeing applications of AI at the Centre for Child Health Technology in Sheffield as part of the Olympic Legacy Park, where AI is being put to use to assist clinicians in identifying tumours via scanning. In the national AI strategy, the Government committed to supporting the National Centre for Computing Education to ensure that there is a wider reach and access to AI courses for people all around the country.
"We will harness the benefits of the technology to create those hundreds of thousands of jobs only if we bring the public with us, which we are committed to doing.”
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