Brexit could speed up the rise of the robots in Wales
Keith Darlington, retired university lecturer in AI
There is widespread agreement on both sides of the political divide that Brexit has become a huge distraction that is eating away at the body politic. One of its consequences is that other important issues are getting scant attention.
One of those is robotics. According to one think tank, almost one in four jobs could be lost in Welsh cities to robotics by the year 2030.
These figures could turn out to be worse because, in a week when Ford has announced the closure of its Bridgend Engine plant, it seems that Brexit might have another undesirable effect.
The UK currently has a lower density of usage of industrial robots compared to Europe. This could provide companies with an opportunity for investment post-Brexit.
It is believed that regions most at risk of losing jobs to robots are also those that voted for Brexit. Thus, the closure of the Ford Engine plant could be indicative of the future use of robots in Wales.
In this article, I discuss the likely impact of robotics – a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI) whose consequences could be very disruptive on the Welsh workplace. Politicians will need to debate and perhaps, intervene.
There are many applications of AI that are likely to have a profound impact on our lives but my focus in this article will be on industrial robotics because their impact is likely to be particularly noticeable in Wales.
Industrial robots have been used in car assembly plants since the 1980s. However, these robots did not use AI and had no mobility beyond movement through single arms. They were programmed to slavishly perform specific repetitive tasks– such as spot welding or painting.
Today’s robots have become much smarter and mobile. Mainly as a result of software improvements that are used in AI. These improvements have undergone a quantum leap in the last five years because of their learning ability.
The ability to learn, known as “machine learning” means, that they require less supervision from humans and are therefore more conducive to autonomous operation.
Today’s industrial robots are in completely unrecognizable by comparison with those described above. They come in all shapes, sizes, and intelligence levels according to their needs.
Many have increased mobility closer to that of humans because they can be equipped with machine vision enabling them to interact with a changing environment. And whilst the technology will improve significantly in the future, they are making an impact now.
For example, Foxconn, is a company that assembles Apple iPhone parts in China and currently employs over a million people. However, it plans to replace most of these workers with robots.
These will be capable of multiple tasks currently undertaken by humans. The new wave of advanced robots could fulfill many roles. Industries that were thought to be immune from the intrusion of robotics could see major change.
For example, a. bricklaying robot called SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) can build walls up to six times faster than human bricklayers. SAM is capable of laying 3,000 bricks per day, as compared with a human builder who could average of around 500 bricks per day.
SAM is currently working in many parts of the world alongside human bricklayers. In farming, robots are being used in planting, weeding, and harvesting crops, as well as milking cows, in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
Last week a startup based at Plymouth University unveiled a raspberry picking robot that can pick about 25,000 berries a day. This is 10,000 more than a human typically does during an eight-hour shift.
In the past, this type of task would have been regarded as very challenging for machines because the robots have to identify ripe fruit and handle the soft berries without damaging them and learn to adapt to different light conditions.
Nevertheless, the manufacturer claims that using the robot would undercut the cost of employing human fruit pickers and would be able to work around the clock during the crucial harvesting period.
Autonomous vehicle are also going to have a major impact as they will also rapidly improve in the next decade and impact on the employment market.
Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other driving-related jobs could encounter some disruption from job losses.
The short-term implications are profound – particularly regarding employment and the workplace. Any work task that is conducive to automation is vulnerable because robots don’t get paid, don’t get tired, and don’t demand better working conditions.
This means that many robots will be likely to take the place of jobs, not only in factories, but in all spheres of physical human work of the future.
Indeed, according to PWC UK , up to 30% of jobs could be automated by the mid 2030’s, mostly through the use of robots.
Moreover, this change could disproportionately hit Wales. As Welsh Labour AM Lee Waters said in a Senedd debate “the rise in robotics is “extraordinary and also frightening”, and likely to affect a disproportionate number of Welsh jobs”.
Of course, there will be jobs created but not enough to offset those lost.
Also, the UK used a lower proportion of robots – only 85 per 10,000 employers compared to 106 on average across Europe.
This is widely seen as providing an opportunity for companies to restructure post-Brexit by increasing robot usage.
There is an urgent need to consider the consequence of all this on employment. It has been suggested by some that the wealth and tax receipts generated by robotics could be used to create a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all citizens of working age.
I discussed this in an article that I wrote for Nation.Cymru last year. But the Welsh government could help in other ways. As Lee Waters said, we should harness rather than oppose the changes the technology brings.
This means preparing young people for roles that do not yet exist and encouraging companies to help those who are displaced to be redeployed where possible, rather than made redundant.
Robotics in the workplace are likely to have a huge impact on our lives in the future –with or without the influence of politicians and government in Cardiff Bay or Westminster.
But the changes are likely to have a sudden effect, particularly on the economy and it is important that our politicians stay ahead of the game where possible so that they mitigate the social impact of the technological change using the tools they have at their disposal.
We have little chance of doing that with Brexit currently dominating political discussion. Even if Wales chooses to be a passive bystander in developing the technology, its impact on our lives could be sudden and enormous – and we need to be prepared for it.
One of Ernest Hemingway’s characters in one of his novels was once asked: “How did you go bankrupt?”, to which he replied: “Gradually then Suddenly”. Let’s hope those words don’t come to haunt us when the age of robotics comes to dominate our future.
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