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July 10, 2023updated 11 Jul 2023 9:13am

UK government approach to AI leaves workers disadvantaged, Labour says

AI must be deployed to benefit staff, not just employers, Labour's digital spokesperson will say as she sets out the party's approach to regulation.

By Ryan Morrison

The government is “failing to keep up with the pace” of technological change when it comes to artificial intelligence, Labour’s shadow digital minister says. Lucy Powell will today warn that technologies such as AI are disrupting citizens and the economy, and impacting workers, with companies looking to cut headcount in favour of greater use of automation. Powell describes the approach of the Rishi Sunak government as “confused, chaotic and slow”, and one that leaves workers disadvantaged, as she sets out her party’s approach to dealing with the technology.

Lucy Powell
Lucy Powell says the government’s approach to AI leaves workers at risk. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking to AI tech leaders at an event on Tuesday, Powell, who has the digital, culture media and sport portfolio in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet, will tell delegates that ministers are failing to meet the scale of the challenge or lead the UK effectively in emerging technology. If elected, Labour says it will take an approach that aims to ensure businesses have stability and workers have confidence they won’t be “thrown overboard” in a bid to turn Britain into an AI-first economy.

Artificial intelligence: a political hot topic

Artificial Intelligence has become a hotly debated topic among politicians in Westminster and beyond, with the extent of regulation required to keep the technology in check and the amount of investment needed to ensure dominance over other countries among the issues under the microscope. The global AI boom, sparked by OpenAI launching ChatGPT last year, has caused companies across all sectors to update business models and software to incorporate generative AI technology.

Sunak’s government is pushing a light-touch, pro-innovation approach to regulation, focusing on international cooperation and safety standards. This includes arranging an international summit on the safety of AI and establishing a £100m foundation model AI taskforce. Labour says this doesn’t go far enough and has previously called for an overreaching body to regulate the use of AI.

Since the start of the year some of the largest employers, including IBM and BT, have announced plans to significantly reduce headcount over the next decade. BT announced plans to cut headcount by as much as 55,000 over the next decade by using AI to find efficiencies and eliminate human roles.

“We are in the midst of a huge technological disruption,” Powell is expected to warn. In a copy of her speech, seen by Tech Monitor, Powell will say that the country “faces a choice about who this will benefit. Will it be those who already hold wealth and power, leaving communities behind, as happened with deindustrialisation? Or will technology be harnessed for the public good, building a society where opportunities are widened and the benefits are fairly shared?”

Powell says Labour’s approach to technology is that it should be harnessed for public good, suggesting it should be deployed “with fairness, accountability, safety by design, and a government acting strategically.” She will tell AI technology leaders that under Labour the focus will be on workers and worker rights. “Workers can either be empowered or excluded by technology, finding themselves on the wrong side of biased algorithms and robot firing,” she says.

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Labour: workers’ rights vital in AI drive

Labour will ensure “technologies are designed with worker safety in mind”, Powell claims, “whether that’s for surveillance, performance management or hiring and firing.”

This will include training and development opportunities, including a new “Skills England” body designed to bring local government, central government and industry together to improve training and fill the growing number of vacancies in the tech sector.

“Rishi Sunak should be approaching these issues with leadership focused on tackling the challenges and opportunities that tech will bring, and ensuring firm foundations for workers, businesses and the economy to thrive, driven by technological innovation and trust in tech to boost productivity and opportunity,” says Powell.

Powell says there are also issues with the Online Safety Bill, describing it as an example of “how not to do digital regulation”. Describing it as being like something out of 1980s political sitcom Yes Minister. She says it has been delayed, flip-flopped and lost sight of its principles-based approach. She adds that it sits alongside the government’s “data bill that is weakening rights just as public trust should be strengthened, and the AI strategy was out of date almost as soon as it was published,” she will say.

Labour has pledged to work with business groups on the development of tech policy. When pressed on whether this partnership will extend to third-party groups, a Labour spokesperson told Tech Monitor there would be wide consultation including with unions and groups impacted by the roll-out of AI. They added that the approach will ensure AI is harnessed and directed to the public good and ensure the benefits and opportunities are fairly shared and accessible to all.

In its AI white paper published earlier this year, the government says its approach to AI is “proportionate, adaptable, and context-sensitive to strike the right balance between responding to risks and maximising opportunities.”

Read more: So what are Labour’s tech policies, exactly?

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