Sir Richard Lambert on the rise of the robots

07 March 2017

  • 15 million UK jobs under threat by new robot and AI technology
  • Sir Richard Lambert calls on companies to prepare workers and society
  • Former CBI Director General dismisses idea of a universal basic income
  • Companies should not push problem on to governments 

Sir Richard Lambert told an audience at Warwick Business School that companies need to take responsibility for the consequences of the rise of the robots.

Speaking in the first of the WBS 50th Anniversary Distinguished Lectures held at WBS London at The Shard, Sir Richard outlined the threat to society of the increasing use of automation through machine learning, artificial intelligence and robots.

The Bank of England's chief economist Andy Haldane has warned that 15 million jobs in the UK are under threat from mass automation, almost half those employed in the country.

The possible destruction of so many jobs has led a number of academics, economists and prominent CEOs, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, to predict that governments will have to hand out a universal basic income to citizens.

Sir Richard, who was Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) from 2006 to 2011, believes CEOs must make sure their companies shoulder their share of responsibility, either voluntarily or by force of regulation.

In his talk, entitled The rise of the robots: the responsibilities of business in the coming industrial revolution, which you can watch below, Sir Richard said:  “It is ironic that companies which spend a lot of time reducing their tax burden are now calling for governments to introduce a universal basic income.

Tipping point: Sir Richard Lambert warned of the rapid technological change

“Technology has in the past boosted productivity, but this time it may be different; the sheer pace and scale of change means it is hard to adapt to a world where the winner takes all.

"Automation, rather than globalisation, was responsible for perhaps 85 per cent of the jobs lost in the US manufacturing sector between 2000 and 2010."

Related course: MSc Management of Information Systems & Digital Innovation

A striking example of the contrast in technology is the once giant of the world of photography - Kodak. At its height it employed 145,000 workers and thousands more in the supply chain.

Then the world changed and in 2012 it declared bankruptcy. In the same year Instagram, with 15 employees, was bought by Facebook for $1 billion and now has 600 million monthly users.

The loss of manufacturing jobs has already contributed to political upheaval in the West, with Brexit and Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the US Presidency as often mentioned examples. Sir Richard warned there could be more shockwaves to come.

“Companies need to share the responsibility for societal consequences of mass automation,” said Sir Richard, who was Chancellor of the University of Warwick from 2008 to 2016 after a career spent mainly at the Financial Times, serving as editor of the paper from 1991 to 2001.

“Companies cannot turn their backs on this. If they set their algorithms for profit maximisation, there will be big repercussions and societal consequences that will lead to a political backlash.

“Employers should also be training their staff for the future where non-cognitive skills will be more important in an AI world; people will need EQ rather than IQ, with relationship-building and empathy as key.”

James Hayton, Dean of Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and a Professor at WBS, offered further questions to Sir Richard at the end of his talk.

Prof Hayton revealed how for some firms today, automation, outsourcing and freelancing were all looked at before hiring new workers was even considered.

He also raised questions of how successful self-regulation by companies is likely to be, and whether greater representation by other stakeholders on boards, including by workers, was necessary.

Sir Richard added: “Is a market driven by shareholder value one we want in the future? We also need to consider the ethical use of algorithms. Research has shown some have a racial bias and a bias against the poor. Microsoft says it is setting up an ethics committee for this, and more companies should follow suit.”

The WBS 50th Anniversary Distinguished Lecture Series, whose 2017 focus is practical ethics, will be held throughout 2017, with further high-profile speakers presenting at WBS London at The Shard in the coming months.


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