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Matthew Taylor: Robotics and AI offer the public sector more upsides than downsides

Matthew Taylor
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When writing about technology and public services I feel I should make several declarations of interest.

The RSA is doing lots of research and engagement on the impact on jobs, particularly low-skilled, low-paid ones, of robotics and artificial intelligence. I am on the ethical advisory board of Deep Mind Health, which aims to use machine learning in hospital systems to improve patient diagnosis and care. I am just finishing up as independent chair of the government review of modern employment, which is also thinking about the impact of technology. Whilst all this might bias me, it also means I can view the issue from many angles.

What I see is far from encouraging.

I don’t subscribe to most of the ten-year predictions of job losses caused by emerging technologies (and anyway, these vary from 37% in one authoritative survey to 5% in another equally well-sourced) but there is no question the impacts will be significant. The downsides will include job losses, the downgrading and deskilling of key tasks and potentially the atomisation of work into ‘gigs’. For public services, however, the potential upsides are surely bigger: removing drudgery from jobs so people can focus on human interaction and creativity; improving service quality; and, of course, freeing up much-needed money.

But, and of course this is a generalisation, the public sector seems to be facing the challenges and opportunities of robotics and AI with a mixture of indifference and pessimism. There may be several reason for this. On the list I would put the ignorance of these technologies among most senior managers and politicians (nationally and locally); disillusionment at the failure of previous generations of technology to deliver what they promised; and probably most of all, the chilling effect of austerity. Although funding cuts should make the case for technology stronger and it has led some councils to grasp the nettle, more generally it has overwhelmed leaders’ capacity to look ahead and invest in change.

There is an urgent need for the public sector as a whole to imagine how things could be radically different if even a fraction of the promise of emerging technologies was realised. Indeed, vision is the vital first step. On the one hand, to face a difficult transition from existing systems, managers, workers and citizens need to be excited by the possibilities for better jobs, services and places. On the other hand, in the words of the Nuffield Trust last year: “Transformation comes from new ways of working, not the technology itself. A transformation programme supported by technology is needed, not the other way round. This is the fundamental lesson that underpins everything else.”

On one level none of this is new. There probably hasn’t been a week in the last 20 years when somewhere in the country there wasn’t a conference exploring how technology could help modernise public services. Yet, in my long life as a policy wonk and public sector advisor, I am not sure I have ever known such a wide gap between possibility and reality. Witness it in the legions of people still being employed by local authorities, the NHS and Job Centre Plus to undertake routine data processing; the many NHS trusts now dependent on creaking legacy IT systems; or the student son of my neighbour, who told me the other day that the only time he ever receives a letter is from the council.

We are told austerity is over. There are urgent calls on any loosening of central purse strings. Public sector pay and benefit levels will rightly be at the front of the queue but if there is new money some of it must be used to fund and incentivise technological transformation.

Nor is it just about making money available; the way it is put in the hands of service leaders and manager is also vital. One issue – and there are many – is the balance between prescription and devolution. While we don’t want more national disasters like the NHS IT programme, neither should every council, hospital or school be expected to make it up as they go along. For one thing, there simply aren’t enough people who understand the technology and its application, who are willing to subsist on a public sector salary, to go around.

Technology like robotics and AI is fascinating and its benefits could be amazing. The priority now is developing a strategy to enable our public services to move from the slow lane to the fast without crashing. It isn’t easy but it is vital.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA


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