George Osborne: Tech is great, but don’t forget about people


“Before we assume all this great new technology … is going to conquer the world, just remember that human beings have a vote,” said George Osborne at an event last night.

The former Chancellor of The Exchequer bustled into the swanky auditorium at Bloomberg’s London office and, after quickly scanning the room and observing the tech vibe, whipped off his tie and got down to business. That business being a panel discussion titled ‘A Glimpse Into the Future’ hosted by tech VC firm ForceOverMass.

Joined by a mixture of ‘futurists’, academics and tech company staffers, he addressed the future of technology and its potential and perceived impacts upon society. Osborne, who served as chancellor from 2010 to 2016, hailed himself a “great technology optimist”.

“[New technologies are] going to improve living standards, they’re going to make people healthier, they’re going to make people live longer, they’re going to improve the choices that are available to people and so we should celebrate them,” he added.

The issue of technology potentially leading to mass unemployment was raised, but Osborne said we mustn’t forget human beings ultimately get a say in their future.

He laughed at the idea that the likes of those in the medical and legal professions would just sit back and allow a computer programme to make them obsolete.

“If you just assume, as some technology pessimists do, that essentially labour is going to become irrelevant, and the holders of capital are going to become more powerful, just remember the votes lie with the labour,” he added, highlighting the recent Uber tribunal ruling as an example of this in action.

Government’s role

Osborne was asked whether or not government should have a role at the helm of technological change. His answer, in short, was ‘no’. Having shaken off the shackles of government, Osborne relished the opportunity to whip out some bad language, using a story about “horse shit” to embellish his argument.

He said he was “sceptical” of the ability of government to anticipate and plan for technological change and gave the example of late 19th century London, when the streets were a mess because of the increasing prevalence of horse-drawn carriages.

“There were endless parliamentary commissions on what to do about the problem and of course what no one came up with was the idea that someone might invent a car,” he said.

Osborne went on to say the government would be better taking a back seat and, instead, look to respond quickly to changes made by the private sector.

“For example [making] changes to employment law, changes to tax law. Self-driving cars are not going to happen in this country unless we change the insurance laws,” he explained.

The former chancellor went on to say he thinks a longer-term view about some of the potential threats created by technology should be taken internationally.

“There were international laws of the sea written in the 19th century as problems of piracy and the like developed,” he explained, adding that he believes the same could be created for certain areas of technology in the future.

“There are things we can definitely be doing here to facilitate change,” he added “but don’t neglect the individuals caught up in this change.”