Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Innovation Zone at the UK-Africa Investment Summit. Concern has arisen that Britain is a slow mover in harnessing the potential of robots. Picture: REUTERS
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Innovation Zone at the UK-Africa Investment Summit. Concern has arisen that Britain is a slow mover in harnessing the potential of robots. Picture: REUTERS

London — In the country that pioneered the world’s first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, its latest one is looking very much on hold.

The global shift towards robotics and artificial intelligence across advanced economies is in a go-slow phase in the UK — where Covid-19 and Brexit have hampered progress.

That threatens to harm Britain’s competitiveness against rival economies that are already retooling more aggressively to be more productive. It could also mean greater long-term pain in the UK labour market, delaying the inevitable adjustment for workers who need to retrain as jobs in industries from manufacturing to retail become obsolete.

“Eventually, businesses will have to automate because it is just cheaper and better — better for employees as well,” said Tera Allas, director of research and economics at McKinsey. “In sectors that are competitive, either we automate them and we continue to be competitive, or someone else automates them and we ship in those goods from some other country.”

Britain has long been a somewhat slow mover in the fourth industrial revolution harnessing the potential of robots and artificial intelligence. That was the conclusion of a report by legislators in 2019 calling on the government to develop a strategy to accelerate that shift.

In manufacturing, for example, the UK has just 89 robots per 10,000 workers, compared to more than 900 in Singapore, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). That’s the lowest level of any big economy.

One reason for that is subdued investment provoked by Brexit uncertainty and the redefining of Britain’s trading relationship with the EU.

The transition in place when the UK did finally leave the EU in January provided encouragement — with spending intentions on plants and machinery rising to a two-year high, according to a Confederation of British Industry survey. Robot orders reached the highest since 2012, another study showed.

But then Covid-19 struck. Business investment plunged more than 30% as a nationwide lockdown shuttered firms, kept employees out of workplaces and broke international supply chains.

Since then, the virus has created a new incentive for businesses to shift away from human employment and find more reliable workers and processes that can’t succumb to illness.

But that has yet to translate into new orders for Brian Palmer, the CEO of Tharsus. His company creates and commercialises robots for clients such as online grocery giant Ocado Group and jet-engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings.

“People are still trying to figure out what this new normal looks like,” he said. “There’s more interest, but is there investment and action? Not yet.”

Such news might come as a faint relief for millions of UK employees already facing the threat of layoffs as government wage support winds down. The advent of automation and robotics has long been a spectre hanging over labour markets that could displace as much as 50% of the global workforce, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane said in 2018.

That respite may not last forever. In a survey of European business leaders by EY, more than 80% said the shift to automation technology will probably accelerate because of the pandemic.

“It is now just much more expensive to employ people because you have to worry about social distancing, you have to worry about safety equipment, you have to worry about testing and tracing,” said Allas. “Covid itself has massively changed the playing field between capital and labour.”

Guildhawk, a company that provides translation and content management systems for companies such as KPMG and Hitachi, is confident that Britain’s fourth industrial revolution won’t stay on hold for long. The company has unveiled two new products since the coronavirus struck — including one that automates the process of checking and correcting large volumes of translated text.

“Now we can see what technology can do for us, people are really pushing forward,” said founder Jurga Zilinskiene. “Instead of looking at tech as some kind of monster to take away your job, now the tech is the hero.”

Still, the risk if businesses don’t respond to the shifting landscape is that the UK will lag further behind peers when it comes to sowing the seeds of future growth by adopting technology to boost poor productivity.

That could not only delay the labour market’s adjustment to the new reality, but also curtail work prospects for future generations of employees.

“The UK has missed the opportunities to invest in automation more than a long time,” said Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the IFR. “If you don’t use robots, why would you create the skills around them?”


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