Up to 11 million British jobs will be lost to robots, Labour MP Tom Watson has warned.
The Black Country MP, who is Labour’s Deputy Leader, said the nation had to start planning for a future in which millions of people will be thrown out of work by new technology.
And he said that robots won’t just replace roles such as unskilled factory work. Doctors, lawyers, managers and academics will find they are no longer needed because computers and robots can do their jobs better and at lower cost, he said.
Mr Watson (Lab West Bromwich East) issued the warning as he spoke to business leaders at the Engineering Employers’ Federation, which represents manufacturers. He said that his vision might sound far-fetched – but the idea that every home, school and office would have an internet connection sounded far-fetched just 20 years ago.
And he pointed out that car manufacturers across the world, including Jaguar Land Rover, were close to developing cars which drive themselves – threatening the jobs of delivery drivers and others.
The question for leading nations like the UK was how to ensure wealth was shared fairly even when there were fewer jobs, so that people could enjoy extra leisure time rather than simply being plunged into poverty.
Mr Watson said: “Over the course of the next quarter of a century, nearly everything will be automated. This will be the most profound change in industrial history. We cannot halt the change but how we deal with its impact is down to all of us.”
He told his audience of business leaders: “The manufacturers in this room know better than anyone how robotics and automation are affecting production methods. You know the real impact robots are having on your business. It’s not the stuff of HG Wells. It’s happening in Tunbridge Wells.”
And he said: “Today, robots are not just making cars, robots are on the roads driving them.”
Better technology will mean people are better educated and have a much bigger choice of products in the shops, he said.
But he pointed out that consultants Deloitte had calculated that automation had removed 800,000 jobs from the UK since 2001. Mr Watson added: “Another report, again by Deloitte, said that 35 per cent of today’s UK jobs have a high chance of being automated. That’s around 11 million jobs.”
He said: “Automated systems are not just driving cars. They are diagnosing diseases, writing annual reports, researching criminal cases in court, designing software, shifting and storing goods in warehouses, pouring our coffee.
“When a robot can read a set of accounts, or a thousand emails, or a million phone records to discover a pattern in a fraud case, then why employ a lawyer to burn the midnight oil?”
He said the worst case secenario could mean that rich people get richer while most people get poorer. He added: “A society of affluent leaders, and struggling workers, but little room in the middle and few chances for movement.”