We don’t have to let artificial intelligence and robots take over the world

June 25, 2023

“Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

“I thought you might say that Hal – that’s why I brought an axe…”

2001: a Space Odyssey need not be the future. We don’t have to let artificial intelligence and robots take over the world.

Artificial intelligence is not history’s first technological shift.  The agricultural revolution increased food production fivefold.  New species like potatoes, new techniques like crop rotation, and new technology like wheelless ploughs caused agricultural workers to move to towns.

Inventions like the flying shuttle kicked off the industrial revolution, doubling a weaver’s productivity.  Soon after Spinning Jennys increase productivity fivefold.  Power looms fortyfold.  Canals replaced mule trains.  Steam trains replaced canals.  The internet is replacing window shopping.

Technology hasn’t stopped, and it won’t stop, until we hit the planetary limits of Earth.  There are only so many cows we can feed and petrol cars we can drive before parts of our world become unliveable, limiting worldwide food production, and crashing the global economy for good.

Every technological leap has caused social shifts.  Some awful – like the use of child labour in Victorian factories and workhouses described in Oliver Twist.  Some great – such as plummeting infant mortality rates with vaccinations – at least in wealthy countries.

History might regard better working rights, wider education and improved healthcare as inevitable progress, but they always had to be fought for.  That struggle continues today. Our trade unions are fighting not just for their pay, but our public services, and the rights of the workers who come after them. Our trade unions are on the right side of history.

Using technology for good is a political choice.  It’s what we’re doing at the North of Tyne.  Since I’ve been Mayor we’ve attracted big tech firms to the region: Verisure, Xplor, Monstarlab, Thoughtworks, Credera, Version 1, and Omnicom.  All paying good wages.

Complemented by jobs in manufacturing and small and medium enterprises. Everything from our investment in Transmission Dynamics in Cramlington, who produce smart bolts that detect when wind turbines need repairing.  To helping North Tyneside joinery firm Cronin implement a new digital tracking system to triple their workshop output.

They’re all part of the 5,000+ jobs we’re creating. Against a Government target of 10,000 jobs over 30 years. 15 years’ progress in 4 years. A decade ahead of schedule.

So can we go further and get a job good to everyone who wants one? There’s plenty needs doing.  Insulating homes. Building a clean electricity system.  Replacing our transport fleet with green vehicles.  And I wouldn’t mind a richer cultural life, too.

We just need to match people’s skills to what employers need.  We’re making good progress. We’ve increased training course enrolments from 22,000 to 33,000. A 50% increase as a result of devolution. For the same budget. With 96% of people completing their courses.  Devolution works –and it’s good value for money.

There’s free courses in DIY, rail track engineering, carpentry, building, gardening. Like those run by Build North East in Blyth.  They challenge stereotypes and let people try something new.

I met Pat there.  “I’ve always wanted to do something like this. We weren’t allowed when we were at school,” she said, as she drilled away.

Or like Peter, an HGV driver.  A sudden medical condition made him unsafe to drive. His employable skill gone after twenty years’ hard graft.  It was tough – the stress caused a spiral of mental ill health and relationship troubles.  We fund 1 to 1 coaching to help people like Peter.  He’s back on his feet, retrained, confident, and developing his new career.

And that’s the key.  Governments are supposed to put their people first.  Not “GDP” or “the markets”. That’s code for “put rich donors’ needs ahead of the people who elected us.”  We can only succeed by listening to people on the ground – and we can only do that by decentralising power from the Westminster bubble.

Everyone is good at something. Everyone has a talent. Our job is to help unlock it. Just preferably not with an axe.