Posts Tagged ‘History’

British jobs for British robots

LONDON — You can’t get cheap migrant labor in the U.K. anymore. Try building a robot instead.

The U.K. government’s newly-unveiled, post-Brexit immigration system is designed to do two things.

First, satisfy a desire for a reduction in immigration that polls and subsequent elections have indicated motivates many British voters; second, and somewhat less obviously, support a high-tech U.K. economy, at the forefront of automation and artificial intelligence.

This dual function is, as they say in Westminster, classic Dom — a reference to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings.

One of Cummings’ publicly stated goals is to turn Britain into “the school of the world” and he has sought, U.K. government officials say, to infuse his passion for science and technology into government policy across a wide range of sectors. His science and tech focus is “clearly the lens we are looking at all sorts of policy through,” said one government official.

The Johnson-Cummings crackdown on low-skilled migration goes beyond delivering what the Vote Leave campaign promised in 2016.

So it is that the immigration system must serve the automation revolution; that migrants with a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subject get double the number of immigration “points” as their humanities counterparts; and so it is that a special “global talent” route will see the most highly skilled migrants allowed to arrive from anywhere in the world without a job offer.

“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust,” the government’s policy document states. British business will no longer be able to use a “reliance on the U.K.’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, and wider investment in technology and automation.”

Brexit politics, post-Brexit vision

The headline takeaway from the new immigration plan is more straightforward: Freedom of movement with the EU will end as of January 1, 2021 and the new system effectively shuts the door on low-skilled migrants from anywhere in the world.

Skilled EU and non-EU migrants will be treated equally and all those seeking to work in the U.K. must have a job offer, speak English and meet a new points threshold determined by salary, qualifications and whether they are coming to work in sectors judged to be particularly needed.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at King’s Maths School in London | Pool photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas via Getty Images

Cummings, officials say, still places great stock in what he gathers from focus groups with ordinary British citizens. He knows full well that regardless of any backlash from business or political opponents, the “points-based” approach is regarded as fair and commonsensical by the Brexit-backing voters the Conservatives need to hold onto. A chorus of support from the U.K.’s right-leaning popular newspapers won’t hurt either.

But the Johnson-Cummings crackdown on low-skilled migration goes beyond delivering what the Vote Leave campaign promised in 2016.

Besides being a highly successful interpreter of the public mood, Cummings is best known for his obsession with science, technological innovation and his desire, as he put it a blog several years ago, for the U.K. to do for the world what Athens did for the Ancient Greeks: school its greatest minds and leads its intellectual and technological revolutions.

He’s not alone in wanting the U.K. to go further and faster on automation. MPs from across the political spectrum on the House of Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee noted in a report on the subject last fall that “the problem for the U.K. labor market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few.” They even made the link between a country that has had more success focusing on automation — Japan — and Tokyo’s “reluctance to increase immigration beyond a limited number of temporary visa schemes.”

The tone of the government’s immigration paper goes further. It implies U.K. businesses have delayed innovations in robotics and automation, partly because of the cheap labor they have been able to get do the jobs that in future a robot might.

2030 vision

Clearly, though, replacing low-skilled workers with robots and artificial intelligence will not happen overnight or across all sectors of the economy.

In the early 2020s, only 2 percent of U.K. jobs could potentially be automated, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Automation will be limited to data-driven sectors such as financial services, where AI could help with simple computational tasks and analysis of structured data.

By the end of this decade, about 20 percent of U.K. jobs could be automated, with robots taking over easy tasks under human oversight, for instance, moving boxes in warehouses. By mid-2030s, automation could have replaced 30 percent of British jobs, as robots become more independent and capable of solving problems in fast-moving real-world situations.

Cummings’ automation vision seems to be rubbing off on Whitehall | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns about the possible loss of existing jobs should not lead to countries shying away from developing these technologies, PwC said. “If governments and businesses in one country do not invest in them, then they will just be developed elsewhere. Unless a country blocks itself off from global trade and investment, which history shows would be extremely damaging economically in the long run, the technologies will still come to all countries over time, so it is better to be at the forefront of this global race.” Cummings would surely agree.

But tech won’t solve everything. AI and robots might play an important role in health care and education, but they are likely to work alongside human doctors, nurses and teachers rather than replacing them, PwC said. This is because of the greater reliance of these sectors on social skills and the human touch. One of the key sectors to criticize the government’s new immigration plans is social care, where one in six of the mostly low-paid workforce are from overseas, and staff shortages already mean thousands of elderly people not getting the support they need.

But when it comes to other sectors, the Cummings’ automation vision seems to be rubbing off on Whitehall. As one Home Office official archly put it, when asked whether the new immigration system’s crackdown on low-skilled migrants would leave the U.K. with a barista shortage: “It’s fine — I’ve got a great espresso machine.”

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UK’s EU guru explains Brexit with dinosaurs and de Gaulle

“I’m here to explain, not tell.”

David Frost is the opposite of the strident, high-voltage Brexiteer. Boris Johnson’s Europe adviser does not possess the bombast of a Nigel Farage. Instead, the U.K.’s chief negotiator comes across as a mild-mannered, suburban bank manager, patiently running through the terms and conditions on a new product — in this case, explaining to a skeptical Brussels audience that Brexit is in fact an exciting “revolution.”

Frost’s speech at the Université Libre de Bruxelles Monday evening — a rare public appearance for an influential figure driving Johnson’s Brexit policy — was part history lesson and part exercise in red line drawing. The U.K. government is comfortable with the hardest of Brexits on trade: tariff barriers, quotas and the rest. “We understand the trade-offs. Some people say we don’t but we do,” he said.

But Frost also wanted to paint Brexit not as some freak event — an aberration that jilted Remainers might reverse in a decade — but rather running with the grain of history. Even as other anti-EU movements in France, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere are toning down their rhetoric in the face of the realities of the U.K.’s departure, Frost sought to frame Brexit as part of a Continent-wide counter-revolution against the EU. When voters can’t effect change, he said, “opposition becomes expressed as opposition to the system itself.”

Britain was first to the door because it had always felt an ambivalent “political absenteeism” from the European project. Rather than Brexit being an unexpected happening, Frost suggested that “Britain was more like a guest who’d had enough of a party whilst trying to find a way to slip out.”

In the longer term, the advantages of being an independent nation that can more flexibly define standards and priorities and seek new deals around the globe would outweigh the negative effects, Frost argued.

With the U.K. now strolling down the street to an as yet unknown destination, here are five takeaways from Frost’s speech:

Global Britain will find it tough …

Frost admitted that Britain’s ambition to become a global champion of free trade comes at a “difficult” moment. The rules-based system of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is under severe strain and big players like the U.S. and China are increasingly resorting to strong-arm tactics to get what they want.

“I think it’s true that obviously the global trading system has seen more positive days than those at the moment,” he said. “There are problems around,” he went on, adding that Britain was depending “on a liberal trade regime” (aka the WTO) to play to its strength as an export-oriented nation.

“We would say that the arrival of a new independent player on the scene in the form of the U.K. is probably going to help that,” he added, optimistically.

… but it will be worth it

In the longer term, the advantages of being an independent nation that can more flexibly define standards and priorities and seek new deals around the globe would outweigh the negative effects, Frost argued.

“To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing,” — David Frost

That is also true when it comes to trading with Britain’s closest partner, the European Union, he said: “There’s obviously a one-off cost from the introduction of friction at a customs and regulatory border,” Frost said in reference to the likely deterioration of trade relations as a result of leaving the EU’s single market.

However, “even if there is a short-run cost, it will be overwhelmed rapidly by the huge gains of having your own policy regimes in certain areas,” he argued. “I think looking forward, we are going to have a huge advantage over the EU.”

Frost cited “the ability to set regulations for new sectors, new ideas and new conditions quicker than the EU, and based on sound science not fear of the future.”

We’re serious about diverging

“We only want what other independent countries have,” said Frost, laying out the U.K. government’s position that it will not align itself to Brussels’ rules.

The clash between the two sides over the so-called level playing field — U.K. alignment with EU regulations on things like the environment and workers’ rights — looks set to be one of the hardest (perhaps impossible) to resolve in the second phase of Brexit talks.

“To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing,” said Frost, “It isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure — it is the point of the whole project.”

Michel Barnier maintains that “fair” competition is central to an EU-U.K. trade agreement| Sean Gallup/Getty Images

His counterpart Michel Barnier maintains that “fair” competition is central to an EU-U.K. trade agreement. Can Johnson make him believe that the U.K. is serious this time about walking away without a deal?

The EU doesn’t understand Brexit

Frost said Brussels has never been able to take British Euroskepticism seriously, regarding it as an “irrational false consciousness, a kind of fundamentally wrong way of looking at the world.”

That meant that instead of seeing Brexit coming, EU enthusiasts regarded the 2016 referendum result as a “horrific unforeseeable natural disaster like the sort of meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs,” Frost argued.

But he said the U.K.’s semi-detached relationship with Brussels — rejecting the single currency, opting out of the Schengen free movement zone and judicial reforms, etc — were “inevitable staging posts on the way out rather than a random series of unfortunate events.”

Asked by a questioner if the late French President Charles de Gaulle had been right to refuse the U.K.’s entry into the club in 1967, Frost said: “Quite often it takes outsiders to see things that are not obvious to yourself.”

“Economic competition, we know for sure, boosts wealth for everybody in the long run,” — David Frost

“De Gaulle was seeing something very profound, to be honest, about British … attitudes and world view and society,” he added.

Brexit will be good for Europe

While many European politicians see Brexit as a lose-lose situation and warn, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of Britain becoming “an economic competitor on our own doorstep,” Frost said the opposite was true.

“The strength of Europe as a civilization, looking back, has been when its component parts have done things differently, have looked to each other, have competed a bit, have experimented in different ways, doing things within a sort of broad framework,” he said. Having an innovative, fast-moving Britain as a neighbor could help to break up slow decision-making processes in the EU, he argued.

“Economic competition, we know for sure, boosts wealth for everybody in the long run,” Frost said. “Perhaps the British exit will help Europe.”

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