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Fourth Industrial Revolution

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what cross-government work they are undertaking to maximise opportunities from the fourth industrial revolution, particularly in terms of digital skills, artificial intelligence, machine learning and distributed ledger technology.

My Lords, we recognise the huge benefits of the fourth industrial revolution and are working across government to exploit them. The digital strategy outlines ways to make Britain the best place to start and grow a digital business, trial new technology or undertake advanced research. We are working closely with industry, considering the recommendations of two major government and industry reviews on digitalisation and artificial intelligence.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. There are some excellent initiatives in various departments, not least the use of blockchain in the Department for Work and Pensions to greatly empower benefits recipients. Does my noble friend agree that all the advantages of the fourth industrial revolution will be realised only through a connected, collaborative approach across the whole of Whitehall? Otherwise, the opportunities before us will not be fully utilised and realised and we will fail, fast.

My noble friend is right to say that there are great opportunities ahead of us. He is right to stress the need to work across government. There will be no silos in government, as far as we can make clear. BEIS and all other departments will work together on this. I merely mention BEIS because that is where I happen to be at the moment—I am sorry; I could have expressed that better. The other point to make to my noble friend is that we want to work with industry and all those outside to make sure we receive the benefits of the change we are seeing with the fourth industrial revolution.

My Lords, I apologise to the House for my enthusiasm. I also apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes—a great ally on many issues—for getting up far too early.

Although the fourth industrial revolution is a recognisable force that promises great GDP growth and the transformation of the world of work and production, the greatest risk to economic efficiency is that income and wealth will be ever more skewed. A weight of reports, including an excellent one by UBS Investment Bank, warn that inequality will be greater and the benefits will accrue to fewer and fewer people. As part of their work on the fourth industrial revolution, will the Government establish not only new measures to track this issue, but appropriate targets to ensure that its economic benefits fall to all in society?

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s enthusiasm for these matters. I think the House is grateful for his very prompt intervention.

The noble Lord recognises, as I do, that changes are coming and that we must accept them and work for them. He will have seen the Made Smarter Review that we commissioned, published only a week ago by the chairman of Siemens, and I think he would accept that we will see many more jobs; I think the review estimated this could create something in the order of 135,000 new jobs. In terms of what he was saying about greater inequality, which I do not accept, there are estimates that the fourth industrial revolution will not only create new jobs, but create them faster and create better-paid jobs. That is something we need to look at. I will certainly look at the other reviews he mentioned, but there are challenges that we must accept. These changes are happening and we must work to ensure that they happen to our best advantage.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister has mentioned the Made Smarter Review, which highlights that the UK is slow in adopting digital technology compared with our industrial competitors. One of the things it proposes is to run an adoption pilot scheme and to use the north-west of England as the location for it. Does he agree that we need to hurry up the adoption of a digital strategy and that a pilot in the north-west of England would be a good way of moving that forward?

My Lords, I shall not make any firm commitments about that review, which was published only at the beginning of the month. Noble Lords will know that we have already had a Question dealing with it. I confessed that I had not yet read the full 246 pages of the review, but I am making progress under the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, who recommended that I read it with a mug of cocoa. I will look at all recommendations. I will not make promises about the north-west of England but the noble Lord will know I have a particular interest there. I would welcome going back up there as often as possible.

My Lords, arguably the biggest challenge facing Governments globally at the moment is the disconnection between policy, legislation and the pace of technological change. Will the Minister give the House a sense of how the Government are approaching closing that gap and, to use a trendy tech word, disrupting their own policy-making processes to keep abreast of developments?

My Lords, it would be wrong for me to make any promises regarding legislation as I have the beady eye of the Chief Whip on me. This House and another place will be fairly busy with what we will be doing over the coming year, but I certainly take on board all the noble Baroness’s other suggestions. We welcome what she has to say.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that inequalities have very much been caused by central banks printing money, which the European Central Bank continues to do? This finds its way into assets, so those who own assets get richer while those who do not stay where they are. Does he not agree that if the Labour Party’s principle is that it should print more money, that situation will get worse, not better?

My Lords, as we are referring to the fourth industrial revolution, is this not a timely occasion to remember the first Industrial Revolution and its birthplace, Telford in Shropshire, particularly in view of the fact that the Iron Bridge is currently being refurbished? Any support for that would, of course, be much welcomed. It is also home of the world-famous Ironbridge Gorge Museums. I might also mention the Telford Steam Railway, of which I am president.

I am very grateful that I do not have to deal with the second and third industrial revolutions, but I thought that someone in this House would want to mention the first. I did not think anyone would be able to remember the first, but the noble Lord pays a valid tribute to his former constituency. We recognise that and hope that the Iron Bridge in Telford gets well soon.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to the Lords Communications Committee’s report Growing Up with the Internet. Of course we have to maximise the opportunities of the digital revolution, but how are the Government planning to protect society—especially our children—from the ethical and moral implications, and long-term consequences, of artificial intelligence and machine learning?

My Lords, I was not on the Communications Committee when it considered and produced its Growing Up with the Internet report—I think that the noble Baroness was. Since I left the committee, I believe that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has responded to that report and I refer the noble Baroness to the letter of response.