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Technology and inequality: Can computers help or is it ‘all their fault’?

Written by Dr Mihalis Kritikos,

Technology and inequality: Can computers help or is it ‘all their fault’?

© Scanrail1 / Shutterstock

On 11 October 2016, the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel will host a workshop, chaired by Panel member Georgi Pirinski (S&D, Bulgaria), to discuss the effects of new technologies on labour markets. The workshop will bring together policy-makers, experts from academia, industry representatives and NGOs to assess the practices in place and options for going forward.

The labour markets of the EU Member States are in a painfully slow recovery from the recession following the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. In absolute terms, on average 22.9 million people were unemployed in the European Union in 2015. The number of people unemployed for one year or more nearly doubled, from 6.1 to 12.3 million between 2008 and 2013.

Technological change and the risk of computerisation often raise fears that workers will be replaced by computers and computer-enabled robots. New technologies are expected to have profound effects on the types of skills that the workers of tomorrow will need, and a more disruptive impact on employment than during previous episodes of major technological innovation. In recent years, there has been a revival of concerns that automation and digitalisation might dramatically reshape labour markets, and may lead to the automation of a much broader range of tasks than just routine tasks, including those that were previously the exclusive domain of humans, resulting in what has been called technological unemployment. A range of policy reports has explored the relationship between digitalisation, jobs and skills and between technological change and job polarisation.

Today, there is an intensive discussion on the relationship between technology, employment and inequality. This STOA workshop will highlight the potential impact of new digital technologies – including driverless cars, the ‘digital’ factory, industrial and service robots, or ‘Big Data’ – in production, administration, or transport and logistics, and explore their potential implications for employment, skills, education and inequality in the coming decades.

Will these technologies create new jobs, new opportunities for European firms and bring back economic growth? Or will they lead to more unemployment, more polarisation between high-paid, high-skilled and low-paid, low-skilled jobs, and a exacerbate inequality in European societies? Who will win and who will lose from the impact of new technology on more traditional areas of employment? This workshop will bring together academic scholars, as well as experts from the European industry and the trade unions, to discuss these and related issues with policy-makers.

The speakers will provide an overview of the current digital transformation of EU industries, present industry and trade unions’ vision of the relationship between new technologies and employment, and investigate the relationship between technology, employment and skills in the European Union, and the ultimate distribution of the costs of digitalisation.

The workshop is highly topical, given the recent report from the United Kingdom Parliament on automation and the workforce, and the ongoing discussion within the European Parliament on the DELVAUX draft report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics, which is expected to provide a basis for future legislation at EU level. The draft report stresses the impact robotics could have, among other things, on future employment, and suggests a close monitoring of job trends, to avoid undesirable repercussions on the employment market.

Interested? Register for the workshop before 5 October and make your voice heard during the debate.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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