A transcript of Theresa May's speech at the World Economic Forum 2018. Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Last year, on this platform, I argued that the benefits of free trade were not being felt by all. And I warned that the failure of political and business leaders to address this threatened to undermine popular support for the entire rules based system on which our global security and prosperity depends.
But I also argued that we could change this. Not by turning our backs on free trade or the global rules based system – which together have delivered the greatest advances in prosperity we have ever known. But rather by doubling down on them and acting to ensure that the global economy works for everyone.
One year on, I believe there are grounds for optimism. Global growth has continued to strengthen, with the IMF estimating that global output last year grew by 3.7%. The populism of the Far Left and Far Right has not made the progress that some had predicted.
And in the UK, we have seen productivity rising, unemployment at its lowest rate for over 40 years and more and more examples of government and business working together to bring new jobs and opportunities to communities across our country.
We have also seen important progress on global trade. The UK has been at the forefront of championing new trade deals, including the EU’s deals with Canada and Japan. The G20 has agreed commitments to tackle overcapacity in steel and the World Trade Organisation has made progress towards launching plurilateral discussions on digital trade.
And as we leave the European Union, the UK will continue to be a global advocate of free trade. Pushing for progress on WTO discussions; seeking to bring new partners to the table – and, of course, after we have left the EU, developing new bi-lateral deals with countries across the world.
But there is much more to be done by the whole international community. And, frankly, too often our rhetoric in support of free trade here in Davos is not matched by our actions.
The commitments on steel need to be implemented. Like the UK, other big aid donors should support developing countries to ensure they can harness the benefits of global growth.
And the World Trade Organisation still needs to go much further in its reforms, ensuring its rulebook keeps pace with developments in the global economy.
For example, services make up 64% of global GDP – yet while some recent trade negotiations are achieving more ambitious outcomes on services, the Trade in Services Agreement remains stalled.
And while the likes of eBay, Amazon and Alibaba have grown into global giants, taking on a central role in the lives of billions around the world, the WTO has been struggling to remove barriers to e-commerce trade for almost twenty years.
Progress on these issues really matters. Because technological advances continue to revolutionise the possibilities for humanity and we must have the international frameworks in place to ensure everyone can benefit from them.
Already, access to the internet has been estimated to have the potential to generate over $2.2 trillion in additional GDP and more than 140 million new jobs in developing countries alone.
While nearly 35 per cent of the adult population in Sub-Saharan Africa has a mobile money account, the highest percentage in the world.
And now the impact of technology is growing in ways that even a few years ago we could not have imagined.
Just last week, a drone saved two boys drowning off the coast of Australia by carrying a floatation device to them.
The use of Artificial Intelligence is transforming healthcare. In one test, machine learning reduced the number of unnecessary surgeries for breast cancer by a third.
The development of speech recognition and translation is reaching a level where we will be able to go anywhere in the world and communicate using our native language.
While British-based companies like Ripjar are pioneering the use of data science and
Artificial Intelligence to protect companies from money laundering, fraud, cyber-crime and terrorism.
In all these ways, harnessing the power of technology is not just in all our interests – but fundamental to the advance of humanity.
But this technological progress also raises new and profound challenges which we need to address.
For example, many fear that because of technology they and their children will lose out on the jobs of the future.
And they worry too about how new technologies might be exploited by those with malevolent intentions; and what that could mean for the safety and wellbeing of their families and children.
So today I am going to make the case for how we can best harness the huge potential of technology.
But also how we address these profound concerns. So that technology is the force for progress that we all know it can be.
Right across the long sweep of history - from the invention of electricity to the advent of factory production - time and again initially disquieting innovations have delivered previously unthinkable advances and we have found the way to make those changes work for all our people.
Now we must find the way to do so again.
Let me start with how we can embrace technology.
Key to this is channelling the power of government and business in partnership to seize the opportunities of technology and create high-quality, well-paid jobs right across the world.
That is why in the UK I have put the development of a Modern Industrial Strategy at the heart of the government’s agenda.
It is a new long-term approach to shaping a stronger and fairer economy – and it understands what government and business each bring to the table. Because I understand the power of business as a force for good.
I know that it is free and competitive markets that drive the innovation, creativity and risk-taking that have enabled so many of the great advances of our time.
But I also understand the good that government can do, creating the conditions where successful businesses can emerge and grow, and helping them to invest in the future of our nation.
So the message of our industrial strategy to the world is clear: Britain will be one of the best places in the world in which to start and grow a business.
The strategy gets the fundamentals right. It drives investment in infrastructure at a local as well as a national level.
And it equips our people with the skills they need – and the skills business needs – to be successful in a changing global economy.
For if we are to retain popular support for the rules based system, we have to stop and understand - sitting up here in these mountains in Davos - what it can really feel like for someone who has worked hard for twenty years and who now finds that the job they know how to do today is not going to be a job that needs doing in the future.
And the answer isn’t to pretend we can sit back and leave it to the labour market alone to resolve.
We need to act decisively to help people benefit from global growth now.
That is why as part of our industrial strategy, there is a focus on supporting new jobs and industries that build on the strengths of local communities.
For example, on our East Coast, Hull is getting behind offshore wind, generating hundreds of jobs in partnership with Siemens.
And just as we act to help support new jobs today, so we also need to help people secure the jobs of tomorrow.
So we are establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world, alongside our world-class higher education system.
We are developing a National Retraining Scheme to help people learn throughout their career.
And we are establishing an Institute of Coding - a consortium of more than 60 universities, businesses and industry experts to support training and retraining in digital skills.
And I know from my conversations with tech companies how seriously they are taking their own social responsibility to contribute to the retraining that will help people secure new opportunities in the digital economy.
But this strategy and partnership with business goes further than getting the fundamentals of our economy right.
It also seeks to get us on the front foot in seizing the opportunities of technology for tomorrow.
We are delivering the UK’s biggest ever increase in public investment in research and development, which could increase public and private R&D investment by as much as
£80 billion over the next 10 years.
We are at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of low carbon technologies.
We are using technology to support the needs of an ageing society, for example by employing powerful datasets to help diagnose and treat illnesses earlier.
And we are establishing the UK as a world leader in Artificial Intelligence, building on the success of British companies like Deepmind.
For I believe we have only just seen the beginning of what AI can achieve.
Imagine a world in which self-driving cars radically reduce the number of deaths on our roads.
Imagine a world where remote monitoring and inspection of critical infrastructure makes dangerous jobs safer. Imagine a world where we can predict and prevent the spread of diseases around the globe.
These are the kinds of advances that we could see. And that we should want to see.
Already the UK is recognised as first in the world for our preparedness to bring Artificial Intelligence into public service delivery.
We have seen a new AI start-up created in the UK every week for the last three years.
And we are investing in the skills these start-ups need, spending £45 million to support additional PhDs in AI and related disciplines and creating at least 200 extra places a year by 2020-21.
We are absolutely determined to make our country the place to come and set up to seize the opportunities of Artificial Intelligence for the future.
But as we seize these opportunities of technology, so we also have to shape this change to ensure it works for everyone – be that in people’s jobs or their daily lives.
Technological change in the workplace
Already technology is changing the nature of our workplaces and leaving many people with less predictable working patterns.
So we need to make sure that our employment law keeps pace with the way that technology is shaping modern working practices.
Take the example of Uber – a ground-breaking use of technology that has radically changed how people move around in cities across the world. But also a company that has got things wrong along the way – with safety issues and concerns over the protections for its workers.
The answer isn’t to shut Uber down but rather to address those concerns, and to establish and enforce the standards and protections that can make this technology work for customers and employees alike.
So employment law needs to preserve vital rights and protections – and the flexibilities that businesses and workers value.
But we must make sure those flexibilities really do work for everyone, and don’t become a one-sided deal that can become exploitative.
This is at the heart of the Review that Matthew Taylor conducted for the UK government last year.
And we will be working to deliver on it – from exploring the case for reforms to make our employment status tests clearer, to identifying a set of metrics against which to measure job quality.
Making the internet work for everyone
Just as people need to feel that technological change in the workplace is to their benefit, so we need to ensure they have faith that the increasing role of technology throughout their lives is enhancing the opportunities they have and the world in which they live.
Technologies like the internet were developed with a philosophy that connecting us together would improve people’s lives.
And in many ways they have. But so far, that hasn’t been completely true for everyone.
Just this week, a survey in the UK has found that 7 in 10 people believe social media companies do not do enough to stop illegal or unethical behaviour on their platforms, prevent the sharing of extremist content or do enough to prevent bullying.
This loss of trust is hugely damaging. And it is in all our interests to address it.
In some areas that means we will need new rules and legislation.
In others, such as online hatred and bullying, we need norms and expectations of how civilised people should interact in ways that can’t be achieved through legislation.
The Digital Charter we are developing in the UK sets out the principles of our approach to agree the rights and responsibilities of the online world and to put them into practice.
It is profoundly pro-business because it seeks to support digital businesses in securing the trust and public confidence that they need.
At its heart is a set of principles.
That the same rights people have offline should be protected online;
That the internet should remain free, open and accessible;
That people should understand the rules that apply to them when they are online;
That personal data should be respected and used appropriately;
That protections should be in place to help keep people safe online, especially children.
And that the social and economic benefits brought by new technologies should be fairly shared.
And underpinning all of this is our determination to make the UK a world leader in innovation-friendly regulation.
Regulation that will make the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business – but also the safest place to be online.
But when technology platforms work across geographical boundaries, no one country and no one government alone can deliver the international norms, rules and standards for a global digital world.
Technology companies themselves, investors, and all our international partners need to play their part.
First, technology companies still need to do more in stepping up to their responsibilities for dealing with harmful and illegal online activity.
Companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content.
We have made some progress. Last September at the UN, I joined President Macron and Prime Minister Gentiloni in convening the first ever UN summit of government and industry to move further and faster in reducing the time it takes to remove terrorist content online, and to increase significantly their efforts to stop it being uploaded in the first place.
But we need to go further, so that ultimately this content is removed automatically.
These companies have some of the best brains in the world. They must focus their brightest and best on meeting these fundamental social responsibilities.
And just as these big companies need to step up, so we also need cross-industry responses because smaller platforms can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists.
We have seen that happen with Telegram. And we need to see more co-operation from smaller platforms like this.
No-one wants to be known as “the terrorists’ platform” or the first choice app for paedophiles.
As governments, it is also right that we look at the legal liability that social media companies have for the content shared on their sites.
The status quo is increasingly unsustainable as it becomes clear these platforms are no longer just passive hosts.
But applying the existing standards of liability for publishers is not straight forward so we need to consider what is most appropriate for the modern economy.
We are already working with our European and international partners, as well as the businesses themselves, to understand how we can make the existing frameworks and definitions work better - and to assess in particular, whether there is a case for developing a new definition for these platforms. We will continue to do so.
Second, investors can play a vital role by considering the social impact of the companies they are investing in.
This is fundamental to the proper functioning of markets, choice and competition.
Shareholders should care about these social impacts because the business model of a company is not sustainable if it does not command public support and consent.
And they can use their influence to ensure these issues are taken seriously.
For example, earlier this month a group of shareholders demanded that Facebook and Twitter disclose more information about sexual harassment, fake news, hate speech and other forms of abuse that take place on the companies’ platforms.
So investors can make a big difference here by ensuring trust and safety issues are being properly considered.
And I urge them to do so.
Third, in a global digital age we need the norms and rules we establish to be shared by all.
This includes establishing the rules and standards that can make the most of Artificial Intelligence in a responsible way, such as by ensuring that algorithms don’t perpetuate the human biases of their developers.
So we want our new world-leading Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to work closely with international partners to build a common understanding of how to ensure the safe, ethical and innovative deployment of Artificial Intelligence.
And I am delighted that the UK will also be joining the World Economic Forum’s new council on Artificial Intelligence to help shape global governance and applications of this new technology.
Many leaders this week are setting out defences of globalisation, open economies, free trade and technological progress – while grappling with how to ensure these operate fairly for all our countries and all our people.
The test of leadership, however, is what action we take. I am clear about three things.
First, the critical nature of international co-operation within the global rules based system – for every country must support and shape the rules for free and fair trade and investment. We cannot pull in different directions.
Second, that we have to do more to help our people in the changing global economy, to rebuild their trust in technology as a driver of progress and ensure no-one is left behind as we take the next leap forwards.
But third, above all, we have to remember that the risks and challenges we face do not outweigh the opportunities. And in seeking to refresh the rules to meet the challenges of today, we must not miss out on the prize for tomorrow.
For the forces of free trade and technological progress which have brought us to this point are as nothing in comparison to their potential to enrich the lives of our children and grandchildren.
The UK has a proud history of stepping up, seizing the opportunities of our time and shaping the international rules and partnerships that can deliver progress for all.
We stand ready to do so again.
So together, let us renew our commitment to co-operation across governments, business, investors and society at large.
And let us set ourselves on a path to deliver prosperity and growth for the benefit of all our people, now and for generations to come.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.