Workers more concerned about surveillance than robots

Surveillance is the new technology that most concerns workers, according to the first report from the RSA’s Future Work Centre.

Good Work in An Age of Radical Technologies found that 51% of workers worry about technology leading to excessive monitoring. By contrast, 44% are concerned about technology leading to falling pay packets, 38% about having less autonomy, and 36% about being discriminated against. The results therefore call into question headlines over fears of future mass job losses due to robots.

Tech companies were viewed as the ones to benefit most from more technology in the workplace, with 42% of workers citing this. Meanwhile 37% cited employers, 13% consumers, and just 6% thought workers would benefit most.

However, tech companies were also seen as best-placed to shield workers from the negative impact of technology, according to 64% of respondents. This compared with 42% who said employers and 22% who said trade unions.

Workers also cited Brexit as a bigger threat to jobs than automation. Thirty-three per cent of workers think the UK’s terms of exit from the European Union will lead to the most job losses, versus 27% who fear new technology entering the workplace. This gap rose among wealthier social groups, with 40% citing Brexit and 24% automation. Meanwhile those in the D to E social groups (working class or unemployed) cited automation as their top fear (31% and 34% respectively).

But despite this trend, automation remains a concern. The report warned that if left unchecked the adoption of technologies like AI and robotics in the workplace could 'depress wages, constrain autonomy, exacerbate discrimination, and – at an aggregate level – sharpen geographic divides'.

Fears were also raised about the government's ability to support workers in the event of job automation. Sixty-four per cent said they would be in a situation where they would struggle to make ends meet (39% strongly so), and just 18% said the government could support them with their living costs.

But the report stressed that if deployed with care, technology could lead to a world of work that is more humane and productive. It cited the example of robotics used in social care to aid workers as they lift and carry patients, and chatbots used by call centre staff to field basic enquiries while they concentrate on more complex questions.

Head of the RSA’s Future Work Centre Benedict Dellot said that despite fears over AI, unemployment is currently at the lowest it's ever been.

“For all the talk of self-driving cars, checkout-less supermarkets and fully-automated warehouses, the loss of jobs is a distant prospect for most workers," he said. "Unemployment rates are their lowest level in more than 40 years, and most workers today are eager to work fewer hours than more. The UK has terrible productivity rates, largely owing to an absence of automation not a surge of it.

“New technologies won’t put humans out to pasture any time soon," he added. "But they will change the way that we work – and in more ways than we might imagine. In 10 years’ time most people may be recruited by algorithms, monitored by algorithms and have their schedules set by algorithms."

Dellot added: “This doesn’t have to be a dystopic future. Technology could be the best friend of workers or their greatest foe. The point is that we need to make deliberate and informed choices in how we design, develop and deploy this technology. Nothing can be left to chance.”

The report marks the launch of the RSA's Future Work Centre. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, said that he hopes the centre will build on his work in adapting employment legislation to suit the changing labour market.

“My employment review for the prime minister looked at how government regulations could catch up with live changes in the labour market. This includes the rise of self-employment, zero-hours contracts, agency work and gig work found through online platforms and apps. Our new Future Work Centre builds on these efforts to look at what is coming down the track in 10 to 15 years' time,” he said.

“In both cases our approach is to cut through the hype and hysteria that so often dominate debates around the future of work.”

Taylor added that we should “not be complacent” about AI: “The good news is therefore that we have time to prepare for an age of AI and robotics.

"But we cannot be complacent. There will be losers as well as winners, and it is our job to steer this technology in a benevolent direction. As well as asking more of government, our poll suggests we should call upon tech companies to share more of their spoils as well as to design and use technology more responsibly.”