THE robots are coming to Glasgow – and they’ll be in a clockwork orange near you. We heard this week that the city’s subway will be the first fully automated train system in the UK, with no staff on board either to drive or open doors.

The promo pics are slick. The driver’s cab will become a viewing platform. You’ll be able to walk from one end of the train to the other. Wheelchairs will be welcomed.

Seasoned Weegies might be wondering whether a fully-robotised subway will be able to deal with colourful Saturday afternoon phenomena like the “bouncy-bouncy”. This is where football fans try to physically derail the carriage from the outside. (It’s reportedly being tested on a track near Ibrox Stadium, so they may be on to this).

However, screens are to be built along the edges of platforms, only opening when the train arrives (as in some London Undergrounds). It’s not only cutting-edge, but horde-proof too.

Is this another cresting wave in the tsunami of joblessness predicted by futurists, as artificial intelligence and robotics replaces routine human labour, mental and manual? Yes it is – but this one’s been coming for a while. A driverless train in New York – the Times Square/Grand Central Shuttle – was running reliably from January 1962 to April 1964. Its only barriers to robot supremacy were a tunnel fire, and then managerial apathy.

So this particular train is nearly sixty years delayed. The point I’m making here is that technology isn’t some implacable and determining force, crushing all before it. The social decisions we make about how we deploy our robots (which can also include just neglecting their potentials) are crucially important. This is the core message of a brilliant new report from the centre-left think tank IPPR on managing automation. It asks us, as citizens, to be a lot bolder and more confident about devising policies that will spread technology’s benefits.

The researchers want to clarify one issue immediately: automation may not reduce the overall amount of jobs in a society, but what it will do, if unchecked, is divide them into increasingly “lovely” and “lousy” jobs.

If you already work in what they call “creative, cognitive, planning, decision-making, managerial and caring roles, where humans still outperform machines” – well, it’ll be lovely. Demand will be high for what you do. If you are involved in low-skill jobs where routine and rote labour is dominant, your tasks will be automated. You’ll also end up – under harsh market conditions – competing against machines on cheapness.

The guru of postcapitalism Paul Mason has pointed out that we have regressed from automated car washes to mobs of humans chucking buckets at motors. Why? Because the availability of exploitable labour makes it more profitable to return to the meat machines than to go forward to the next iteration of car-wash robotics. “Lousy” labour, indeed.

How do we avoid this future? The IPPR people are refreshingly clear about this. The productivity gains of those technologies must start coming back to labourers rather than capitalists.

Because at the moment, it’s all going to the latter. The business consultants McKinsey assess we could automate 50 per cent of existing jobs with current technology. In Europe’s five largest economies, those numbers are $1.9 trillion annually, equivalent to the wages of 62 million full-time employees – all of that returning to corporate coffers.

Add to this the increase in the wealth of asset-holders mapped by economists such as Thomas Piketty and we have a recipe for a surreally unequal world, Blade-Runner-like in its extremes, so we have to fire up our political imaginations here.

For Scots who are ambitious for their government but are not yet decided on the right level of national sovereignty, the IPPR proposals are a challenge – they’re obviously aimed at a potential Labour government/progressive majority at Westminster. But in any case, a confident and trusted nation-state would be needed to take any of these forward. Choose your ultimate legislature.

At the moment, Holyrood is no slouch when it comes to targeting investment in jobs of the future. See the launch of the advanced manufacturing centres in this year’s Budget, and £2 billion investment in skills development.

But the IPPR’s suggestion of a broader-based “productivity” body is worth considering. This would aim at a “managed acceleration” of automation, with substantial GDP benefits for the faltering industries of these islands. Progressively, it would involve unions, government, and businesses in its management.

More sharply, the IPPR wants to promote “new models of ownership”, so that “automation broadens prosperity, rather than concentrates wealth”. They go for it in a very explicit way, arguing for a “citizens’ wealth fund”.

This fund would invest in company shares and other assets on behalf of the public, returning regular dividends to individuals and families. If the shareholding elites are benefitting from automation’s bounty, ask the think-tankers, why shouldn’t citizens gain by the same route?

The problem for indy-minded Scots is that such a fund would be kicked off by measures that include corporation tax, spectrum licensing, and considerable public borrowing – options unavailable to a devolved parliament.

It’s heartening to see the IPPR report recall one of the great opportunities of automation – which is to reduce the amount of hours worked overall in society. This is hard to do on an individualistic level: it means swapping time for the consumer pleasures that everyone else is enjoying. So we’d all have to be in it together (to coin a phrase).

Again, it feels like Scotland is blessed with the social consensus for these kinds of experiments – but with fewer than half the governmental powers needed to properly implement them.

So I, for one, would like to welcome our orange robot overlords to the Glasgow Underground, but it would be easier knowing the fate of the drivers had been properly considered, in ways the IPPR report suggests. A prosperous and fair techno-society is possible. But we have to shape the machines, not let them (or the capitalists that own them) shape us.

The report “Managing Automation: Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age”, is available at