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Rise of the robots: pain or gain?

March 7, 2017

 

The invitation to a private seminar on eco-robotics sounded cool. What I wasn’t anticipating was to emerge feeling so damned depressed about the future.

 

The message from the geeks was: forget globalisation, the biggest threat to future employment is rampant automation.

 

OK, you have only to lift the bonnet of your car to be confronted by the ‘progress’ made in ending human interference. Engine management systems armed with in-built diagnostics now run the show. But is it really that bad?

 

What the seminar highlighted is that it’s not just in manufacturing where the flashy tech stuff is taking over. Trained radiologists in some part of the USA have found themselves ‘supplemented’ by computers capable of interpreting three-dimensional scan images far more accurately and speedily.

 

At a time when our life choices increasingly seem determined by apps and algorithms that ‘sort’ our preferences, even Bill Gates, the man who eliminated the typing pool with the word processor, thinks things have gone too far.

 

Ironically, his comments accord with those of President Trump who has cited automation as a cause of job losses and growing income inequality.

 

Here in the UK, a major report by the Reform think-tank predicts how some 250,000 jobs in government and public sectors could be cut by automation, saving some £4bn in salary costs.

 

 

Food industry chiefs make no secret of the fact that they regard mechanisation as the solution to the post-Brexit loss of cheap foreign labour. One supplier reckons robotic picking machines, using 3D cameras and ‘freshness sensors’, will become economically viable as the flow of EU workers is stemmed.

 

There is also the advent of heuristics, or self-learning processes, which herald startling new applications, such as the system employed by banking and financial services outfit JP Morgan. This technology only takes seconds to parse financial deals that once kept legal teams busy for thousands of hours.

 

The impact on the so-called service sector seems to be worrying folks in both established and emerging economies.

 

Such unexpectedly rapid system advances have led Indian business leaders to tell their government that colleges are failing to teach the right skills needed to make students “future-ready”.

 

Yet for all this official foreboding, it seems many British workers actually see the rise of the robots as an opportunity rather than threat.

 

Some 54% of an online sample of 4000 believe advances in artificial intelligence and automation will enhance matters. By comparison, 33% fear jobs could be at risk. Interestingly, the sample included those in employment and people currently seeking work or a switch in jobs.

 

By the way, in researching this column, I leaned that it’s 141 years ago this week that Alexander Graham Bell sent the first telephone message and patented the telegraph system. His innovations resulted in the internet.

 

Sixty-five years earlier, on almost the same day, the first Luddite attack was recorded in which Nottinghamshire workers smashed knitting frames they believed had made their cottage industry redundant overnight.

Maybe we haven’t come as far as we think.

 

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Keeping us ahead of the curve

 

The saunter to the lifeboats picked up pace a little last week as the UK government launched its plan for us to be “at the forefront of the digital revolution” come Brexit.

 

An all-encompassing proposal rolled out by ministers will offer digital skills to millions of individuals, charities and businesses by 2020.

 

 

The official blurb talks in terms of a plan to foster start-ups. Experts claim the strategy is “lacking in detail” – which translates into “making it up as they go along”.

 

What has worried people in the industry is a piecemeal approach that involves enlisting Google, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays to deliver training packages.

 

The training available is intended to help adults who lack core digital skills. There are also plans to teach basic coding to 45,000 children and general digital skills and cyber-awareness to one million people.

 

None of this has helped to alleviate the despair in academic and business groups who fear that Brexit has the potential to dismantle European technology partnerships which have been evolving successfully over the last decade or so.

Thankfully, we are potentially in better shape to see investment continue in key areas in our corner of the world.

 

Talking to Swansea council leader Rob Stewart last week, it’s clear that he feels the City Deal bid which he has steered through to the final stages will put the region ahead of the curve.

 

We should know for sure by tomorrow if the ambitious proposals for an ‘Internet Coast’ have been backed by Chancellor Phillip Hammond. I’d be surprised if we hear anything different.

 

I’d be equally surprised if the same successful cross-sector approach aimed at boosting digital technology to benefit healthcare and energy didn’t find its way into the government’s own strategy in the future.

 

 

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