Reviews of Theresa May’s speech about the digital age in Davos last Friday have been rather scathing.
The room at the World Economic Forum is said to have been half-empty, with officials favouring a restroom break over an address that was described by an EU official to a journalist from Politico as “literally artificial intelligence”.
Perhaps this is a bit harsh, for very little of what the Prime Minister said about emerging technologies was inaccurate or unimportant. The issue is that she said very little.
So much has been written about the fourth industrial revolution and the impact it will have on our lives. Study upon study has concluded that policy action will be required if we are to both maximise its potential and ensure that as many people as possible will prosper, or at the very least see employment opportunities.
Indeed, May herself pointed out that the labour market could not be left to its own devices to achieve this.
She therefore presented a careful laundry list of aspirations about how we might go about doing such things, including making sure that employment law keeps pace with technological advances and ensuring that social and economic benefits are “fairly shared”.
Absolutely no one will argue against these goals – striking the right balance between each is obviously key. But what we require from the Prime Minister and the government is more than having additional voices join the chorus of academics who already agree more or less.
We need them to articulate a broader vision for what a fourth industrial revolution Britain should look like.
It is regrettable that the Prime Minister’s speech missed the opportunity to do so.
May talked about Britain leading the world in artificial intelligence, but that also requires leadership on her part – something that was probably on her mind, given reports that letters of no confidence were circulating among her backbenchers as she was taking the stage.
Part of this leadership involves offering an opinion on some of the issues that the digital age presents.
For instance, what is her view on the steps we should take to ensure that the wealth generated from automated technologies makes its way to all parts of the United Kingdom? What is her view on how automation will create jobs?
These are exactly the sorts of questions the British people need to grapple with, but they will not until leaders bring them into the public consciousness.
A new £9m Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation alone cannot be relied upon to spark that much-needed conversation.
The Prime Minister further muddied the waters by sending mixed messages about the impacts of emerging technologies. For every mention of the ways artificial intelligence can bring improvements to healthcare, there were warnings about cybercrime, hate speech, and modern slavery.
This conflation of the discussion around life-saving diagnostics algorithms with online radicalisation will surely do little to assure the British people and the world that the future is something they can look forward to, let alone play any positive part in.
The government wants technology companies to come and invest in Britain, but anyone who did listen to the Prime Minister speak last Friday would be justified for wondering why.
As Matt Hancock, the newly-minted secretary of state for digital, puts it, the digital revolution is going to be “bigger than Brexit”.
So to borrow an already-tortured phrase, the government will need “to take back control” of the narrative in order to inspire real confidence that there is a positive vision for Britain’s long-term future as the next industrial revolution looms.
The Prime Minister’s aspirations seem correct and her intentions good, but it might be time for something more.
Hancock’s promotion is certainly a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether his ideas will gain any traction in a room full of the Brexit-obsessed.