The robots are coming – Wales needs a plan

Lee Waters calls on the Welsh Government and public bodies in Wales to seize the opportunities of the artificial intelligence revolution.

Analysts have compared the impact of artificial intelligence with the arrival of electricity in the late nineteenth and early 20th Century – it’s that big a shift.

The technology writer Luke Dormehl used the parallel to help us get our heads around the scale of change we are facing. That was a profoundly disruptive change that interrupted the regular biological rhythms of life – electric light allowed people for the first time to create their own schedules for work and play so night and day no longer mattered. And it unleashed a chain reaction of innovation. The network of wires ushered in a slew of connected devices that created industries and changed lives forever.

It’s that scale of profound change that we are on the cusp of again. Right now we are in the ‘early adopter’ stages of the artificial intelligence revolution, but we can discern an outline shape of the type of change that’s ahead of us.

Elon Musk at Tesla thinks a car manufacturing factory without any human workers is within reach. Amazon are trialling a shop without workers, where you are automatically billed when you leave the store. And researchers at the University of Maryland developed a robot who is able to cook a meal just by being shown a ‘how to’ video on YouTube. They’re now turning their attentions to the application of similar so-called deep learning in areas like military repair.

These are all game-changers. And they are up-ending business models in the process.  

You won’t find the largest global retailer on the High St; the world’s largest accommodation provider doesn’t own a single hotel; and the largest taxi firm doesn’t own a single car. It’s called disruptive change for a reason.

Innovation expert Alec Ross points out that robots used to be stand-alone machines carrying out basic tasks. Now they are connected to the Cloud, and are learning as they go, not just from their own experiences, but – because they can be linked to every other similar machine across the world – they learn from each other and adapt in real-time.

He calls it a “quantum leap for the cognitive development of robots.” It’s the equivalent of you and I being able to tap into the combined brain power of every other human on earth to make a decision, and to do so in a split second – imagine how much smarter we’d be, imagine how much better our decisions would be. That’s what’s happening with robots.

It is extraordinary. And it also terrifying for an economy like ours that has a disproportionate number of jobs that are vulnerable to automation. But this change is unstoppable and we must get our heads round it, and adapt.

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men”, Charles de Gaulle famously said. Of course it’s human nature to resist change. None of us wants to face up to the fact that our job may be made obsolete. But it is Welsh Government’s responsibility to ensure this wilful blindness is not replicated at a national level.

When Gerry Holtham recently suggested at an IWA event we might get rid of GPs altogether because technology could do their job for them, the professions jumped on him. Both the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians denounced him.

Like the Guilds of craftsmen from days of old – which orchestrated the banishment of William Lee, the inventor of the knitting machine, in 1589 –  we must not let their desire to protect their trades stop us from harnessing these changes. And let’s be clear, the threat of job losses will pale into insignificance to what will happen if we don’t take advantage of the possibilities.

If we harness the technological innovation coming our way, we can use new labour-saving devices to free up staff to work on the front line, to improve public services – that’s the debate we need to have. But if we hold back there’s a danger that the down-sides of change will dominate the debate, creating a climate of fear.

AToS and other consultancies are as we speak touting themselves around cash-strapped Councils offering to save millions by cutting routine jobs and replacing them with automated processes. If we allow this approach to take hold all talk of automation will be seen by the workforce as a cost-cutting approach.

Government needs to mobilise – right across its whole breadth – to face up to how we can use these new technologies to help tackle the problems we know we face.  

In education – we need to ensure that we’re preparing young people for roles that do not yet exist. And we need to be mindful that many of these changes are coming in the next 10 – 20 years; we must think about training for those already in work, too.

In the economy – Wales’ new economic strategy recognises the productivity gains that can be made through encouraging the adoption of automation. But we need to be smart in how we apply this new criteria. Inevitably Government will end up giving financial assistance to make firms more resilient which may lead to some jobs going. But when that happens we must make sure the companies are helping those who are displaced to up-skill – to be redeployed, rather than made redundant.

In finance – the evolution of blockchain technology offers us an opportunity to be totally transparent in how we spend public money.

And in rural Wales – we must seize the opportunities presented by big data to not only transform how we farm and produce food, but also to position Wales at the forefront of this emerging precision agriculture industry.

In local government, we must follow the example of other cities that have gone smart – trialling real-time data driven services such as smart-parking, smart-refuse collection and smart-lighting.

And there are huge opportunities in healthcare to improve patient care and outcomes. From therapeutic robots that can help deal with our loneliness crisis; to sensors that can track if people are missing meals or behaviour is becoming more erratic – helping dementia patients remain independent in their own homes for longer. Actually, if we look at the implantable technologies coming our way, these are just the tip of the iceberg.

This is a cross-Government agenda – relevant to every Cabinet Secretary portfolio. These innovations will save money, and they’ll improve the quality of public services. But these are all examples of technologies that are already out of date – and we haven’t adopted them.

We’re not even in the foothills of this.

In my speech given in Senedd last week, I called on the First Minister to set up a unit dedicated to horizon-scanning new developments and rapidly experimenting with new approaches to benefit public service delivery, and encourage the growth of new industries in the private sector.

This is a huge challenge for Government, especially since we are fighting on so many other fronts. Local Government is almost paralysed by austerity and central Government by Brexit. And its constraining our ability to respond to a rapidly evolving environment. But our Future Generation Act demands that we face up to these long-term threats and opportunities.

It is only through rapid, cross-government action that we will be able to rise to this challenge. I wouldn’t swap my digital alarm clock for a knocker-upper. Just as nobody would turn back the clock to a world lit by candlelight.

So, too, we shouldn’t try to halt automation. We must harness it.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Lee Waters in AM for Llanelli

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