Thursday, 6 April 2017

Automation: Resistance is Futile?

Continuing the running theme of the backbench members debates this term - the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" - AMs turned to automation, something that was once science fiction but fast becoming science fact.

The Issue

As usual there's a briefing from the Assembly Research Service.

It's believed up to 15million jobs in the UK are at risk from automation, particularly low-skilled, relatively low paid work in manufacturing and the service sector. The car industry and high-end manufacturing have used robots for decades, while self-service checkouts are a norm of modern life and it's even starting to make its way into banking, with counter staff replaced by machines or smartphone apps.

Machines are faster, stronger, rarely make mistakes on their own, don't need rest and don't need to be paid. They're particularly useful for repetitive tasks that require little in the way of decision-making  - like being a blogger - as well as situations that require the processing of large amounts of data in a short space of time - like being a blogger.

Increased automation will have a huge impact on the economy and even the very concept of "work" itself. Some of the implications include: the introduction of basic income/citizen's income, a robot tax, shorter working weeks, job-sharing as well as major changes to skills and training.

If we don't get it right, automation could also create a massive underclass who are surplus to requirements and unable to support themselves - including people who currently consider themselves middle-class/white collar.

I told you making binary the only official language would be useful.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the challenges and opportunities presented by the "Fourth Industrial Revolution".
  • Notes an estimated 700,000 Welsh jobs are at risk from automation over the next 20 years.
  • Believes Wales has a competitive advantage in emerging growth industries, but to capitalise on that we need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to revisit its innovation strategy, taking into account the scale of the coming changes, with a strategic review of opportunities in emerging growth sectors to establish early market dominance.

Key Points

Lee Waters AM (Lab, Llanelli):

  • The "Fourth Industrial Revolution" will be defined by the ability to combine technology with physical and biological systems.
  • Technology has crept into our lives by stealth; CDs and DVDs have become practically obsolete in a generation, our money is increasingly digital, our homes are smarter, there's driverless transport and we'll soon be able to reuse rockets for space travel.
  • The impact will be gendered: for every 3 male jobs lost to automation 1 will be gained, women will lose 5 jobs for every 1 job gained.
  • Automation needn't always be seen as a threat to jobs but a tool for growth and the creation of new economic sectors like precision agriculture, big data in finance and cybersecurity.

Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West):

  • Technological developments like artificial intelligence have the potential to displace traditional jobs in manufacturing and processing.
  • We have two options: fight against it like Luddites, or innovate to survive. The latter still needs protection for workers, an education system that develops necessary skills and lifelong learning opportunities available to everyone but particularly those who miss out.
  • Innovation funds from the EU will need to be continued post-Brexit to ensure companies can "move with the times".

Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley):

  • The number of people in employment in Wales stood at just over 1.4million, so automation could threaten 1 in 2 jobs. Companies may need to become smaller and more flexible with shorter supply chains.
  • We may "already be too late", MIT believes a four-fold increase in robots has already impacted on jobs and wages.
  • Management of natural resources will be a key part of the new industrial revolution; Wales already has significant expertise there.
  • It's a great chance to strengthen the further education sector; a school in her constituency won a robotics competition and it's encouraging to see they're already developing the skills they'll need for the future.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central):

  • The period between 1945-1980 was a golden age of the blue collar worker, but a series of forces has impacted them including the digital revolution and globalisation; this has also led to "staggering" declines in global poverty.
  • The workforce is divided 50:50 between adaptable flexible workers and those who are nostalgic for stable lifetime employment.
  • We need to be very careful about moving away from seeing work as a central organising force in people's lives and start recognising the value in things like volunteering and civic/community work ( being a blogger).

Jeremy Miles AM (Lab, Neath):

  • Automation could eliminate jobs in all parts of the economy, and not everyone will be able to take advantage of any new jobs created.
  • Automation generates bigger profits for companies and some of that has to be clawed back. Bill Gates advocates a levy on technology to fund public services.
  • We may need to look at how work is distributed, such as reductions in the working week or longer periods in education.
  • Automation needs to drive down costs of everyday basics – food, housing, transport – so a comfortable life is affordable in a world with less work. This could be done via a universal basic income and it's right to explore the options and pilot them.

David Rowlands AM (UKIP, South Wales East):

  • We live in a time of great promise but great peril. Better connections in technology can improve efficiency and undo the damage of previous industrial revolutions. However, it could also have a negative effect including the impact on semi and unskilled workers, increasing inequality and breaking down the structure of society.
  • The hospitality/tourism sector – one of Wales' s economic strengths – is an area where it will be difficult to replace humans with machines.

Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn):

  • Automation has means simple acts that were barely believable when the Assembly was established are now everyday realities (i.e. self-service checkouts). This has made life easier for consumers, but harder for workers and we read statistics without comprehending the meaning: a single job loss can cause huge damage.

Welsh Government Response & Summing Up

Economy & Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South):

  • The debate overlaps with conversations he's had on the current approach to economic development and how that has to change.
  • The 700,000 figure isn't pure job losses, but an impact on jobs. New jobs would be created in data analysis, maintenance etc. but we still need to ensure every job loss can be replaced and the population has the skills to take those opportunities.
  • An independent report on the impact of automation for the Industry Wales body recognised the economic benefits – 94% of businesses agree digital technology is a great driver for growth, an example being (possible) 3D printed organs in the future.
  • The biggest challenges to Wales are regional economic differences and future-proofing the workforce - meeting them will require difficult decisions that go against conventional thinking.

Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly):

  • He was pleased by the shared optimistic vision of the future, and it could even be altering the nature of politics with the cross-party agreement on the changing nature of work itself.
  • We often don't recognise transformational change in our daily lives (he cited Nokia feature phones once being commonplace but now supplanted by smartphones). Wales is proud of Admiral insurance, but could they be hit hard by artificial intelligence alongside bank branches and supermarket staff?
  • We need a coherent long-term commitment from Welsh Government to digital infrastructure so we can lead in new high-value industries and have a unique selling point for Wales.

The motion was agreed unanimously.


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