The Robots are coming - Wales needs a plan for automation

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales on 17th January 2018

"And we will build brutal energy cut into a much better home. It’s a movement toward the beautiful legal scams and better share.

And it was a gingly deal and I don’t think they’re never worth in the middle deal... to be parted to Mexico.

Not the most inspiring opening to a speech, I’ll admit. But what sets this opening apart, is what sets this debate apart….It was written by a robot".

A gimmick carried out by the New Yorker last year. They fed 270,000 words spoken by Donald Trump into a computer program that studies language patterns. It analyzed his word choice and grammar, and learnt how to simulate Trump's speech.

It doesn't totally make sense, but then neither does Trump.

Although I like the term ‘gingly deal’ I don’t think it’s yet part of popular lexicon…

But I opened with it because I wanted to bring the abstract, quickly into the real.

Until now automation and robotics has been largely confined to manufacturing industries, but the exponential growth in the application of artificial intelligence will now hit every industry, every profession. Doctors, accountants, lawyers, translators...Any role that has a repetitive element, is likely to be impacted.

It is estimated that around 700,000 jobs in Wales will be hit by automation. And we need to mobilise to prepare people for the change that is coming.

And it's a big change. Indeed, 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 has 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.

I was blown away by the robot who is able to cook a meal just by being shown a ‘how to cook’ video on YouTube without any direct human input. Researchers at the University of Maryland did this experiment two years ago. They are now planning on how to use similar deep learning in areas like military repair.

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.

These are all game-changers. Changing the way we behave - Amazon, Airbnb and Uber all demonstrating how quickly technology can change how we shop, sleep and move from A to B.

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.

As the Director of the CBI in Wales points out in an article today in 2004, Blockbuster had 84,000 employees and had revenues of $6bn. In 2016, just 12 years later, Netflix employed 4,500 and made $9bn.

It's called disruptive change for a reason.

And its evolving quickly. The early days of the internet was about tasks - like finding information or listening to music. But now technology is moving to anticipate our needs.

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.

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. Nor horsepower. So, too, we shouldn’t try to halt automation. We should harness it.

“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 our 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. “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects” Queen Elizabeth I told him.

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.

We know there are a shortage of Doctors, and that demand is rising. And public spending is falling. We also know that many of the new technologies are more accurate than humans, and that patients in many cases would prefer to be diagnosed by a machine. So let’s free up overworked medics to do what only they can do, and let’s harness technology.

And this is my plea in this afternoon’s debate. If we face up to the enormity of the change that is upon us, we can use it to improve public services, to free people from dangerous or routine tasks.

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.

And it needn’t be. If we harness it 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. And 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. I don’t know about you, but I still hope to be gainfully employed in my fifties.

We must think about training for those already in work, too.

In the economy - Ken Skates’ 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 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.

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; contact lenses capable of measuring glucose levels that can then trigger the injection of insulin via a pain-free patch; and smart hospital machinery that can alert nurses to real-time changes in patient’s vital signs, ensuring that changes in condition are picked up immediately, rather than periodically, and leaving nurses free to focus on other aspects of patient care.

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.

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.

Where are we in Wales? We’re not even in the foothills of this.

The NHS is the biggest purchaser of fax machines! And the two reports issued in the last week - the Wales Audit office report on informatics, and yesterday's Parliamentary review, painfully highlight that we are way way behind. The Government needs to be radical here. We not only need new systems, we need new cultures and new leadership to bring about this transformation.

And as technology evolves, people will come to increasingly expect to be able to access the services they need, when and where they need it.

If I can’t see a doctor and Babylon Healthcare is giving me the chance to talk to one online for £25 chances are I’m going to take it.

If we fail to keep pace with public expectation, and private providers step in, it could threaten the very foundations of our public services.

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 challenges.

Llywydd - Wales needs a plan.

We need a unit in FM’s office 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.

I’ll close with a quote from a report by the World Economic Forum - an organisation not known for its alarmist views:

“The individual, organizational, governmental and societal adjustments are not trivial, and everyone will feel their impact. The speed of various aspects of the transition is hard to predict, but it is not difficult to see that the world will function quite differently 10 to 15 years from now. Being prepared to navigate the transition begins with awareness of the shifts to come, and some understanding of their implications.”


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