Robots and local elections: difficult to predict

Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson is concerned. The rise of robots, he says, poses a danger which needs to be addressed. Low-skilled jobs will be threatened and will lead to increasing inequality as wealth will be concentrated in the hands of the owners of capital. His analysis is not unlike Karl Marx’s 150 years ago. The parallels between the industrial revolution and the ramifications of the rise of the robots are also obvious. Automatization will lead to changes as any disruptive technology does. Creative destruction will be at work. Manual labour will be substituted by robots, leading to unemployment – 11 million jobs could go in the UK, according to Deloitte.

Now, transitionary unemployment might be unavoidable, but not a reason to restrict technological advances. Even Watson is no Luddite. He is not against progress. What he wants is an industrial policy, so the state can guide the development and make sure everyone prospers from the new technology. How the state is supposed to do this is not addressed. And here lies the problem with any industrial policy. Picking winners and losers is not the job of government bureaucrats, who are exceptionally ill qualified for the task. Only the market can perform this function.

Ironically, when interviewed about this on the Daily Politics show on BBC, he was also asked about the forthcoming local elections. He had ‘no idea’ about the outcome, he said. He couldn’t see the irony in being unable to speculate about his subject matter, Labour politics, but having no such concern when being asked to predict the future use of robots in industry.

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