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Digital disruption: Are robots taking our jobs?

Professor Phillip Brown with Welsh Government Ministers
Professor Phillip Brown with Welsh Government Ministers

At our annual University Executive Board away day in September we had a PESTLE session to explore the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental risks, challenges and opportunities facing the University. We will share future PESTLE sessions in our blog.

I invited Professor Phillip Brown, Distinguished Research Professor, from the School of Social Sciences to help us understand how rapid advances in digital innovation are likely to impact the economy and future of work in Wales, and the opportunities this will present for us.

I wanted to share Phillip’s expert contribution and the issues that we discussed:

The influence of technology on the future of work is a hot topic. Against a backdrop of stagnant wages, public austerity and Brexit, there is considerable uncertainty about what digital innovation means for people’s livelihoods and those of future generations. These concerns are well-founded as discussions around automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are often presented as a threat to jobs and personal privacy.

In the spring of last year, I was asked by Ken Skates AM, Minister for Economy and Transport, to Chair a review investigating how rapid advances in digital innovation are likely to impact the economy and future of work in Wales. Read the final report which was launched recently

Digital innovation is a game changer, but technology is not fate. Economies, whether large or small, developed or emerging, must confront major challenges to establish new business models, employment practices, and ways of skilling their workforce. While it presents considerable challenges, it also offers new opportunities to use digital innovation to improve the quality of jobs, business productivity, delivery of public services, and individual wellbeing. Through bold initiatives and creative leadership, Wales can transform the economic landscape to benefit everyone rather than just a select few, thus making the economy work for people in a sustainable and inclusive way. Cardiff University in collaboration with other HE institutions, has a key role to play in this transformation process.

Important changes predicted over the next decade or so

The review investigated the research literature on the impact of automation on jobs. It highlights significant weaknesses in research design and challenges several key assumptions that inform public debate. The report concludes that:

  • The threat of widespread ‘technological unemployment’ is exaggerated
  • Some industries and occupations will be more impacted than others
  • Wales in not more at risk of job automation than most of the UK
  • Today’s school children will not enter jobs that don’t yet exists – 90% are replacement jobs
  • Automation does not simply attack from the bottom of the occupational structure. It is also having a significant impact on ‘graduate’ jobs
  • Expect major changes in the nature and experience of work across the whole occupational structure
  • The number one issue is job scarcity/job quality not just training people with the ‘right’ skills. The fundamental challenge is how to transform the Welsh (and wider UK) economy, to create more of the jobs that people have been ‘promised’ in return for investing in higher education.

What are the issues/causes that we’re not already thinking about?

A major challenge for Cardiff University (and the wider system of higher education) is that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is not a unique age of technological invention, but instead an age of recombination. A study of American patents from 1790 to 2010 found that in more recent times, most patents involved the recombination or refinement of existing combinations of technologies rather than the creation of new technological capabilities. It includes any novel products and services, but also more productive or innovative ways of doing existing things, driven by an exponential increase in computing power and advances in knowledge straddling many academic fields, that reject established distinctions between Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects STEM/non-STEM. While investment in Research and Development and world-class higher education play a vital role, in an age of recombination we need to focus attention on developing a culture of digital innovation and lifelong learning across the whole economy and wider society.

What are the opportunities and things to be excited about?

• How can Cardiff University contribute to delivering Wales4.0?
• Expect a major push on tech-driven industrial transformation
• A proposal to establish an AI Institute for the Future Economy (very broadly defined, including issues of ethics, social inclusion and individual empowerment)
• A ’multiversity’ approach to the future of tertiary education in Wales
• Bolstering the international reputation of HE research and overseas postgrad teaching initiatives linked to Wales4.0
• A clear endorsement of the Reid and Diamond Reviews calling for increasing Research and Development funding, especially after Brexit
• A major initiative to make Wales a world leader in skills, work and industrial analytics.

In many respects the University needs to launch its own conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by digital innovation, and how it can contribute to delivering Wales 4.0. In the same way that I’ve been impressed by the range of initiatives across Wales addressing digital innovation, most of them are poorly aligned and lack the scale to really make a difference. The PESTLE session with members of the UEB revealed the richness of research activity across the University and an openness to ideas. An obvious start point is to launch a conversation about what 5-6 key areas the University wants to be internationally renowned for. An obviously example highlighted by the PESTLE session is the research and teaching currently being undertaken around Clean Energy and the Circular Economy, which just happens to be one of the Industrial Innovation Clusters identified in the Digital Review.