The rewards generated by robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) should be used to reduce the state pension age and realise other benefits for working people.
According to a report by the UK's Trade Union Congress, while previous waves of technological change have not led to overall job losses, much of the benefit of improved productivity has gone to business owners, and not been shared by workers in better wages and working conditions. It wants the impending wave of AI productivity gains to be handled differently.
The TUC noted that in 1950 almost one in three workers worked in manufacturing, and only one in 12 worked in professional and technical services. By 2016, these shares had reversed, it said, but the jobs lost in manufacturing were not replaced by jobs of similar or better quality in the communities affected. "Wages in former industrial areas are still 10 percent below the national average," it said.
With robotics and AI-powered productivity gains likely over the next couple of decades the TUC said more needs to be done to limit disruption to working people's lives, and to maximise opportunities for working people to benefit.
It said income gains from higher productivity could be used to stop planned increases in the state pension age, and called for a right to a "mid-life career review" and new investment in workplace training.
"Previous technological revolutions have not seen a decline in the number of jobs. But they have seen a reduction in total hours worked. One potential benefit of technological change that should be embraced is its ability to improve the quality of working life," the report said.
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Robots and AI could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need a debate about who benefits from this wealth, and how workers get a fair share."
"Robots are not just terminators. Some of today's jobs will not survive, but new jobs will be created. We must make sure that tomorrow's jobs are no worse than today's. They must provide fulfilling work, with good pay and conditions. And there must be funding to train people for new work if their job is made obsolete."
It's not clear quite what the impact of AI and robotics on jobs is likely to be: some estimates suggest that up to a third of jobs could be automated; however there are likely to be new jobs created as well.
"What we do know is that a significant number of current jobs are liable to be lost to digitalisation and that policy makers must plan to mitigate that outcome," said the report. For some workers AI is likely to improve their productivity and thus push up pay; one estimate suggests a 10 percent boost to GDP thanks to automation. However, workers with 'lower' skill levels could see their jobs change or disappear, and even worse competition for the few remaining jobs available may push wages down even further.
"The last wave of technological change - from the 1970s onwards - was accompanied by real disruption for many working people. Industries that had been the mainstay of many local economies disappeared, without thought for what might come in their place, or investment in those who had worked in them," it said.
However, the report doesn't go as far as to suggest that AI and robotics will do away with so many jobs that we'll need some kind of universal basic in come to deal with the large scale unemployment.
"Advocates of a Universal Basic Income have suggested that this should be funded through a tax on 'robots', as the most effective way of ensuring that those who own capital do not end up with an ever increasing share of the financial rewards from growth. We are sceptical that this is the right approach at this time. As we set out above, we need more investment in technology, not less," it said.