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‘Big Brother’ is about to start watching you

Over ten years ago there was a lot of talk about a manufacturing renaissance here in the UK and how automation would herald new advances in productivity and employment.

The leading industrialist Juergen Maier, then managing director of Siemens here in the UK, warned that despite being excellent at process improvement, the UK was failing to take full advantage of the technologies available in the same way as other European countries.

He warned that automation could become the UK’s Achilles heel and, in truth, despite the hype and talk that’s surrounded the benefits of Industry 4.0, it’s true to say that here in the UK we haven’t embraced automation in the same way that many of our competitors have.

For many, the use of cheap labour has been the logical alternative to investing in new technology, especially among businesses that don’t have the financial resources.

Without higher investment in new technology, however, we’ll not improve productivity, see faster economic growth or be able to create more skilled jobs.

Today, as the economy struggles with various shortages, there is a renewed focus on automation as well as in upskilling labour and, while this is a discussion that we’ve had over many years, perhaps the terms of the debate have now changed.

Both Brexit and Covid-19 are forcing businesses to look more closely at automation and the use of technology and it’s likely that jobs that involve physical interaction between people will see increased use of technology, for example in leisure, retail, medical care and the like.

The dramatic take-up of home working, with almost 40 per cent of people now working from home for part of the working week, has seen improved productivity as workers no longer have to contend with the daily commute.

These are seismic shifts in the economy which have in turn raised some interesting questions around the use of surveillance technology.

According to research published in the Financial Times with the increase in remote working so there’s been increased interest from companies in acquiring technology that enables them to monitor staff working remotely.

So, while technology can certainly improve our lives as well as make us more productive, do we need to ensure that in the process we don’t open ourselves up to a more intrusive form of mass surveillance.

Because from where I’m sitting ’Big Brother’ is fast amassing the tools to deliver on Orwell’s vision as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Neil Tyler

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