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Robots Won’t Save the U.K. from a Brexit Labor Shortage

As many foreign workers are forced out of the country, don’t expect smart machines to clean your office or help out on the farm.
December 21, 2017
Mengxin Li

When Britain leaves the European Union, many immigrants will be forced out of the country. But many of those people provide much-needed labor, and calls to automate the jobs they leave behind are impractical.

Eighteen months after the U.K. voted to leave the EU, many details of the exit remain unnegotiated. But the process is broadly expected to have one big impact: a clampdown on immigration from EU countries. In fact, immigration has already declined since the vote, with the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics reporting that net migration into the U.K. is down from 336,000 in the 12 months preceding June 2016 to 230,000 in the 12 months preceding June 2017. Three-quarters of that decline was due to a decrease in immigrants from the EU, a group directly affected by Brexit.

That will have a profound impact on the labor market. According to the consultancy firm Accenture, there are 1.6 million EU workers currently employed in the U.K., and as many as 88 percent of them may not qualify for a visa under new rules. If employment rates were low in the U.K., those job vacancies could be easily filled—but that’s not the case. In fact, unemployment is at its lowest rate in the U.K. since 1975.

Some British politicians in the current government have argued that automation could help. Andrea Leadsom, then secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, said that there are “a whole raft of new technologies that complement the workforce.” Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has said that “there are steps of automation that can be taken by investing capital but are not taken when access to low-cost labor is available.” Alan Mak, a Conservative Member of Parliament, has argued that AI and mass automation should be cornerstones of British industry after Brexit.

It’s a nice idea. But robotics and artificial intelligence won’t come close to filling labor shortages in a post-Brexit Britain.

Much of the problem is that many of the jobs that will be hit by labor shortages can’t easily be automated. An analysis  by the University of Oxford Migration Observatory of occupations and sectors staffed by the highest numbers of foreign-born workers in the U.K. shows that occupations such as cleaning, clothing manufacture, hospitality, and health care will be among those most affected. But cleaning an office or house or making clothes require manual dexterity not yet exhibited by robots, while hospitality and health care require interpersonal skills and empathy that even the most advanced artificial-intelligence systems lack.

In other sectors, it might be possible to automate a process—but it may also be hard to find the money to invest in automation. Benedict Dellot, associate director, of economy, enterprise, and manufacturing at the British think tank RSA, points out to MIT Technology Review that, for instance, labor on farms will be particularly hard hit by an immigration clampdown, but machines to pick many crops, such as soft fruits, can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. “A lot of farmers just don’t have access to that kind of capital,” he says.

Even if availability and cost aren’t barriers, there isn’t yet a clear hunger to introduce automation across the U.K. Indeed, the country is far from the leading edge of automation: the International Federation of Robotics says that the U.K. currently has the lowest robot density in the G10.

And in a survey that was part of the RSA’s recent report “The Age of Automation,” just 14 percent of U.K. business leaders said they had already invested in AI or robotics or planned to in the near future. A further 20 percent said that they want to invest but that it will take “several years” before they do. Meanwhile, 14 percent wouldn’t adopt such technologies because it’s too costly, and 15 percent wouldn’t because the technologies are unproven.

The uncertainty of a post-Brexit political climate may exacerbate that problem. “Business may delay investing in robots,” says Philippe Schneider, a visiting fellow at British innovation foundation Nesta and coauthor of the organization’s recent report “The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030.” “They may be more inclined to hire workers who can be hired and fired more easily in line with needs,” he says.

There is also a question of talent to consider. Deploying automated systems requires expertise in robotics and AI, but despite an excellent university network that produces many engineers and computer scientists, much of the U.K.’s technology talent heads to America and China. At a recent House of Lords select committee hearing on artificial intelligence, held in London and attended by MIT Technology Review, Joseph Reger, chief technology officer of Fujitsu’s international operations, said that it is “difficult to find the right people” for AI projects in Britain. “The market is essentially empty,” he explained.

Matt Hancock, the U.K. government’s minister for digital, appears to be more pragmatic about the situation than many of his colleagues. “It’s too simplistic to think that there’s a like-for-like replacement” of workers with robots, he explains. But he argues that the government is working to create an environment across the U.K. that is receptive to adopting automation, arguing that while “it isn’t for government to run the strategy of a given company,” it “can make sure [there is] a competitive market with infrastructure and skills in place to adopt.”

He points to new AI initiatives that he hopes will make it easier for many companies to choose how and when to automate, as well as increased investment in robotics and AI research to help improve available technology. He also argues that Brexit may itself help, by freeing the U.K. from tight EU regulations that may have slowed innovation in the past. As an example, he points in particular to the development of autonomous vehicles.

But many of these initiatives will take time to bear fruit, and some people fear that the government simply can’t do enough to support AI and robotics during such a turbulent political period.

“At a time of greater technological progress than humanity has ever witnessed, when I would want our entire government focus to be on leading the way in exploiting these emerging technologies, most of our ministers are preoccupied with disengaging from Europe,” said Richard Susskind, IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, at another House of Lords hearing on AI attended by MIT Technology Review. “It is the worst possible time to be considering a demerger.”

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