Realising the potential of everyday AI

The Prime Minister was right to set out the challenges of AI in terms of the progress technology could deliver. There are incredible opportunities for human ingenuity to combine with the best of new technologies to transform our economy and society.

Accelerating developments in AI and related digital technologies could be key both to turning around our productivity and growth performance, and releasing new resources to repair and upgrade our public services. Moreover, the UK is uniquely well placed to harness this potential, with its world-leading scientists, engineers and innovators, and the most dynamic tech sector in Europe.

Yet far too often the government’s emphasis on the white heat of AI misses out of the key ingredients of its successful development and adoption – people. Our history of economic change has been dominated by upheaval done to people, not with them. Communities have been promised new opportunities but, in many parts of the country, face poorer jobs and rising inequality.

The race for AI is about economic change and how we handle it, as much as it is about the technologies itself. Even the government recognised this potential, publishing an economic report back in 2021 that suggested we could add £41.5 billion and further 650,000 jobs to the economy by 2025 – but only if we get the right tech ecosystem and support to transition in place.

But the Tories’ failure to take this up means we now risk utterly squandering this opportunity.  The focus on super-hero skills obscures the rise of everyday AI and its very real impacts on jobs, work and communities.  When the government talks of a national AI strategy they really mean a science and innovation strategy. The ‘upstream’ of AI innovation is critical but we also need to look at how it relates to the everyday AI ‘downstream’, too. AI done badly risks not only alienating those communities who could often benefit most but also increasing inequalities and access to services.

That’s why I argue that harnessing the benefits of the digital revolution needs to be rooted not only in the technology itself but three ‘P’s: people, place, and power.

Labour has the potential to get this right and the early signs look promising.

As Rachel Reeves has stressed, economic stability is the absolute precondition for the investment and innovation the digital revolution will require. But as Peter Kyle recognises, another critical ingredient where these new technologies are concerned is trust. The importance of “securonomics” as a philosophy is at its clearest when it comes to unlocking the economic benefits of technology, a point I’ve made in a paper with Dr Harry Pitts on Cybersecurity and Labour’s Modern Industrial Strategy.

The digital transformation of our work and everyday life offers substantial benefits but entails great dangers. Mismanaged or misused, these new technologies pose real risks to privacy and dignity, economic inclusion and social cohesion, even safety and democracy. This is not about dystopian futures: some of these negative effects are already being felt. But the answer can’t be a block on change that denies us its benefits.

The government’s top-down approach risks telling people that tech is good without showing them the benefits of its adoption or how it can help their lives. And after the chaos and upheavals of the last decade, change is not always regarded as positive by many people or communities. Indeed, when the government suggests that the UK leads in tech, it can only plausibly point to a small part of the economy. The “Be the Business” G7 Productive Business Index last year highlighted that most smaller businesses still invest less than our EU peers.

I don’t believe that the robots are coming for us or our jobs. But I do think that a deterministic view about technology’s inevitable direction makes it less likely that people will get involved in shaping and setting the framework and the priorities for its development, deployment and use.

Recent IMF analysis found that AI will affect almost 40 percent of jobs around the world, replacing some and complementing others. This will be higher in places like the UK. This has huge implications for skills, career pathways and the jobs of the future.

But nearly two-thirds of the UK’s 2034 workforce is already in work. Tech is already transforming how we do our jobs and how we are managed. The risks of making this discussion solely about the “future” of work is two-fold: it puts off action; and it cedes agency to Big Tech. The people at the cutting edge of this revolution are the ordinary people who are already using it and feeling its impacts. They need to be at the heart of our thinking and debate.

An AI strategy without a people strategy will not deliver on the potential to transform our country or communities. The government has no digital adoption strategy.  The contrast between the energy ministers have put into frontier AI safety and technologies and the energy they have put into supporting SME technology adoption speaks volumes.  The main SME scheme in this space was closed in December 2022, leaving little meaningful uptake or adoption plan for nearly two years.

We need a whole government plan for AI that covers both the upstream impacts – frontier technologies, IP, safety – and downstream everyday considerations. For Labour that means ensuring its missions draw together the best of government and business to deliver on adult skills, build public confidence and ensure we benefit from tech advances in areas such as health. An incoming administration needs to rewire government to work across government departments and overcome traditional barriers in decision-making.

My second “P” is “place”. AI will change the geography of work as much as the means of production. Digitalisation will mean we can produce value from just about anywhere. But that still needs to be rooted in somewhere.

That’s why ensuring place is part of our thinking and planning is absolutely critical.  We have seen the challenges that online shopping and working has posed to high streets and city centres. But used the right way, new technologies could hold the key to rejuvenating quality of life and pride of place in every part of the country.

The trend is towards tech investment in big cities, attracted by existing labour supply, infrastructure and connectivity. Left unanswered, this could exacerbate exiting inequalities, something that the Institute of the Future of Work has picked up in a recent report.

Many tech companies want to invest in new places but face challenges in building new tech hubs, not least the effect of issues like local house prices on attracting the right pipeline of skills and talent. A recent TechUK survey of tech sector leaders put energy costs and the cost of living as the two top risks to expansion.

Putting people and places first means in turn that we take power seriously. We know technology can both empower and disempower. Managing that balance means making it genuinely accountable to individuals and communities. Its governance and the discussion over its development must be properly inclusive, with businesses, trade unions and local representatives all having a say and a role to play.

In contrast, the Government story on tech has been narrow and top-down, remote from the everyday economy and the people who work in it. Despite promising to broaden the conversation the Prime Minister has done nothing to make this about more than the cutting edge.  In this silo powerful players join ministers at top tables and fireside chats  – an exclusive group with the rest of us left outside of the discussion.

Labour’s future decade of renewal offers an opportunity for a government-wide strategy that can being together science and innovation, cybersecurity, business investment and public service reform, skills and jobs, devolution and place-shaping. It means rewiring government at all levels around the purpose of growth and technological change as something that is felt in the everyday economy. An integrated, inclusive  and involving industrial strategy will be key to this. The Prime Minister talked about making science and technology our new national purpose but the government has so far failed to do what is necessary to broaden this effort beyond  Big Tech.

We have huge opportunities to use tech to drive innovation, growth and shared prosperity. It has the potential to reshape work for a new era. But, as with previous forms of industrial advance, we need shared rules and a debate over priorities to guide that development. Most of all, we need to put people and communities in the driving seat.

 

If you enjoyed this piece, see Andrew’s paper with Dr Harry Pitts, ‘Securonomics beyond the ‘first political question’: Power, people and place’.