Rishi Sunak wants to put the UK on the world stage with his AI Summit this week, but there remains a crucial missing ingredient from the government’s script: workers. And it is not a new omission.
The government has chosen to make the summit about existential risks and global standards. Yet for most of us, AI will be about the services we engage with and the work we do. Technology is redefining a new era in economic growth and jobs, but the government has shown little interest in its impact on work or the transition we need to a new economy.
There is huge potential for the UK to benefit and lead on innovation and technology to drive forward prosperity. But this also contains risks – to jobs, communities, and our sense of identity. In the face of this complexity, the government has set a narrow agenda defined by big tech and apocalyptic visions rather than the everyday AI that is already changing our lives.
That’s why over 100 global labour and civic organisations have come together in an open letter to the Prime Minister criticising this narrow approach. “For millions of people in the UK and across the world”, the letter says, “the risks and harms of AI are not distant – they are felt in the here and now.”
The immediacy of this reality is confirmed in new ONS survey figures released this week on the public’s concerns about the potential for AI to exacerbate existing inequalities in the workplace and wider society. Over 40% of administrative, secretarial, sales and customer service workers believe AI could put their job at risk, whilst the same proportion of those working in professional roles believe AI could make their job easier. Unsurprisingly, those with higher levels of education were twice as likely to agree AI will benefit them than those with fewer qualifications.
This throws a more urgent light on a scenario sketched out in one of the government’s own papers published in the run up to the summit:
“By 2030, the most extreme impacts are confined to a subset of sectors, but this still triggers a public backlash, starting with those whose work is disrupted, and spilling over into a fierce public debate about the future of education and work.”
In Britain we know how technological change can hollow out industries and communities if not managed properly. The scars of deindustrialisation linger to this day. But in last week’s keynote speech on AI the Prime Minister talked about the dangers and risks posed by new technology, but he didn’t spell out who faces them, or that the risks will be faced by different people differently. It seems unlikely these issues will come up in his conversation with notorious union buster (among other things…) Elon Musk this evening.
In contrast, the new AI Executive Order published by President Biden in the United States this week sets out a much more ambitious agenda, looking at risks and opportunities, including for work, workers and people-led innovation. Joe Biden’s route to the presidency ran through the ‘Rust Belt’, US states which suffered the most through deindustrialisation. He knows how technological shifts can damage, as well as enrich, a nation and though we are still in the early stages is working to make sure communities are protected.
This matters to our overall economic performance as well as individual lives. The UK has historically lagged behind our main competitors on productivity, and our difficulties in delivering on major infrastructure are demonstrated by the debacle over HS2. If the UK wants to take the lead on the opportunities of AI, it needs a pro-business and pro-worker approach. Labour has started to sketch this out under Shadow Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Peter Kyle MP, building on Labour’s mission-driven approach to prosperity. Alongside ethical principles for AI, we need an industrial strategy to deliver growth, a skills strategy to unlock the potential of workers, and a fair digital transition to ensure communities and people are part of the change, rather than victims.
We can harness the benefits of tech, but we need to work together, and lean into the risks to understand people’s concerns and ensure change is experienced as positive. That is why it is disappointing that work and jobs are off the menu when it comes to the AI Summit.
The key will be working with good employers to create new opportunities for workers and the UK economy – and setting clear guardrails to prevent creeping exploitation from bad practices. This is harder than speculating on extinction scenarios. It requires government to genuinely challenge big tech, and employers across the economy. Sunak’s choices this week stand in contrast to the emerging mission driven approach taken by Labour’s new Shadow AI Secretary Peter Kyle MP which looks more at everyday impacts of AI in our lives.
Our economic success and global influence will be determined by our ability to deliver a positive vision for AI. People need to be central to our vision, not just technology delivered by powerful players already in charge of tech assets. This requires Britain to take a more holistic and grounded approach, understanding that tech needs to be part of an industrial strategy to deliver for people and places, as much as it needs global summits and standards.
Can’t get enough of the AI summit? Check out Sunak’s AI Safety Summit: who gets a seat at the table?