Banging on about robots

Lee Waters reflects on the scale and speed of automation, and calls for urgent, collective action






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Looking back on the issues I’ve become really engaged with since becoming an Assembly Member, there are a couple of surprises. Some issues I knew before I was elected that I wanted to take an active role in – such as active travel and Looked After Children – where I already had a personal passion and wanted to see progress. But there are others that I’m more surprised about. I knew, for example, that I wanted to try and influence the work being done to boost our economy – both in Llanelli and across Wales – I just didn’t realise I’d spend so much of my time banging on about robots.

But at about the same time as I was standing to be selected as the Labour candidate for Llanelli, I read a book written by a former advisor to Hillary Clinton – Alec Ross – called ‘Industries of the future’. In it, Ross offers a fascinating analysis of emerging industries being spawned by the fourth industrial revolution – including robotics and automation, cyber security, big data, the codification of money and financial markets, and genomics. And I was particularly struck by one paragraph:

 

“As the technology continues to advance, robots will kill many jobs. They will also create and preserve others, and they will also create immense value – although as we have seen time and again, this value won’t be shared evenly. Overall, robots can be a boom, freeing up humans to do more productive things – but only so long as humans create the systems to adapt their workforces, economies and societies to the inevitable disruption. The dangers to societies that don’t handle these transitions right are clear.”

Alec Ross (2016) The Industries of the Future

 

Then in November last year, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, made an astonishing speech – setting out stark analysis that warned more than 15 million jobs in Britain could be automated within the next twenty years. Using their methodology, and applying it to Wales, I was able to estimate that over 700,000 of the jobs lost will be Welsh; roughly one job in every two (in specified sectors), is at risk from automation in Wales over the next two decades. Even more worrying, is the deeply gendered impact of automation; for every three males jobs lost, one will be replaced, whilst women will lose five jobs for each new one created.

We’ve experienced automation before but the scale and scope of this new challenge faced is unprecedented. For the first time, so-called ‘white-collar’ jobs will be affected; doctors, accountants and lawyers, amongst many others, all risk being replaced by computers and algorithms that can gather data from far wider sources to make calculated judgements on anything from tax returns to cancer treatments.

But automation isn’t something to halt, it’s something to harness. This rapid technological evolution will present significant opportunities; if we prepare well, automation could drive out repetitive, high-risk jobs, replacing them with creative, well-paid alternatives, and it can relieve some of the pressure public services are under. But action is needed to prevent the ‘uberisation’ of jobs – often characterised by low pay and insecurity. And we must ensure the safety net – for those that do lose their jobs – is fit for purpose.

So, in June, I pulled together leading experts in the field of automation, along with some of Wales’ biggest employers, to discuss the scale and speed of the challenge faced, and what strategies are needed to collectively address this issue.

Attended by Ken Skates AM (Cabinet Secretary for the Economy), and the Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, there was clear consensus that the development of a future-proofed skills agenda will be crucial to achieving this. We need to rapidly scale-up coding and ICT provision in our schools, and we need to better prepare people for the instability and uncertainty that is coming; providing people at all stages of their career with sought-after leadership qualities – such as flexibility, creativity and innovation. Focus must also remain on finding new ways of encouraging girls and women into STEM subjects and careers, or we will see already deep gender divides becoming more severe.

Action will be needed at the firm or organisation level as well. One of the most interesting ideas that came from the discussion I hosted, was on the need to support firms and organisations to focus on product diversification (over productivity) in order to help lessen the human impact of automation. The logic is that as automation replaces jobs in existing products, employees that would otherwise be made redundant could be redeployed into new products and services instead – where their existing knowledge would be an asset.

And again, organisations need to be supported to take advantage of emerging technologies. Worryingly, none of the 19 wellbeing reports that have so far been submitted by local authorities as part of the Future Generations Act has identified automation as either a risk or a future tool for success. And just one of the regional skills partnerships picked up on automation as either a threat or opportunity. We need to tackle the traditional public sector mindset and facilitate access to expertise.

But to truly capitalise on these opportunities, and prepare for the risks, Wales needs a 2050 vision for our economy; we need to be at the forefront of the adoption for new technologies; and we need to approach automation with ambition to create uncontested market spaces – leveraging our existing expertise and combining it with new technologies to exploit emerging market opportunities.

We need to face up to the transformation that’s already underway and that is coming our way. And we need to do it fast.

If you’re interested in reading a fuller report of the meeting, please visit:www.leeforllanelli.wales/our-campaigns

 

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Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Cooperative AM for the Llanelli constituency