The latest shenanigans about Facebook and the harvesting of people’s personal data for commercial purposes reminds us that information technology is not just about the domination of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google in deciding how we communicate with our friends, what we watch and how we buy and sell consumer goods. New technology is changing everything on a global scale.
What to Do When Machines Do Everything is a wake-up call for businesses to either embrace new technologies or die. “Those who succeed in the next phase of the digital economy are not those who can create new machines but those who figure out what to do with them.” Although it is written for an American audience, it is relevant to anyone interested in the impact rather than the process of technological change. It helped me understand why automation is dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution: because it is changing everything we do.
The challenges for Wales are huge.
Take Manufacturing. We take great pride in our Welsh steel industry - it provides well paid jobs to thousands of people and our other manufacturing industries rely on Tata, Celsa and the rest to produce the highest quality steel products to build the buses, bridges and tall buildings of the future. Quality assurance is already largely computerised because machines are much better at spotting small production inaccuracies than humans. Welsh steel can only stay ahead of its international competitors if they continue to deploy new technologies to, for example, reduce the weight of vehicles to increase their fuel efficiency or reinforce the safety of buildings.
But future success is not just about keeping abreast of new technologies. It also requires the best ingenuity of the human brain to develop new applications; that cannot be done by machines. The challenge is to make sure our universities are sufficiently geared to turning out the metallurgists and engineers who understand that collaboration between different disciplines is the key to the product breakthroughs of tomorrow. The Cardiff University Brian Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) has amply demonstrated that.
Research on the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the UK  highlights that this not just a manufacturing challenge. Whilst the biggest job losses are predicted in the manufacturing hub of Alyn and Deeside, nearly 20,000 jobs are at risk in Cardiff Central, mainly in retail and business administration. Just as garage mechanics are already redundant unless they have computers to identify faults in car engines, other service industries will be eliminated unless they harness the ability of machines to do the repetitive bits of their operations. Welsh law firms must use machines to trawl through case law relevant to their client’s case. The growing financial services industry in Cardiff needs to compete with financial service start-ups operating out of their back bedroom. The UK equivalent of US robo investment advisers, Betterment and Wealthfront, are already challenging who can trade in stocks and shares. It is clear that computers can do a better job than compromised accountants when it comes to spotting impending disasters like Carillion.
The challenge for the National Assembly is to ensure that Welsh businesses, big and small, are given urgent support to identify which repetitive processes in their enterprise can be done by machines before their competitors have figured it out and under-cut them.
On the face of it, this makes depressing reading for trade unions. How on earth can they continue to maintain the wages and conditions of their members in the face of these technological challenges? On their own they will be unable to resist the elimination of their members’ jobs and the general impoverishment of whole communities. Regulation will be required to prevent that. For example Uber. There is nothing wrong with the technology used by Uber to deliver a cheaper, more efficient door to door taxi service. What is wrong is the failure of Uber bosses to a) regulate their drivers; failing to check whether they have a violent history poses a risk to their passengers; b) pay their staff a living wage so that the benefits of new technology are shared by the workforce rather than a greedy few at the top.
There are ways in which we can harness AI for the general good. Not a day passes without union leaders flagging up unsustainable pressures on teachers and health workers in a perfect storm of rising expectations within a straightjacket of austerity. I am keen to explore how we reduce the pressure on them by getting machines to do the uncreative parts of their jobs.
Teachers are exhausted by the requirement to constantly evaluate the progress made by each individual pupil. Continuous assessment is however essential if future teaching and learning plans are to meet individual pupils’ current level of understanding. In an ideal world, a class of 30 pupils needs 30 different lesson plans tailored to each individual’s learning style. Sounds utopian but Frank, Roehrig and Pring point out that an application like McGraw Hill Education’s Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces(ALEKS) can deliver quick and accurate assessments of what each student knows. Using such technology can free up teachers’ time for the creative, human task of how to deliver the next lessons which grab pupils’ attention in big or small groups or on a one to one basis.
Equally digitising patients’ medical history would enable health workers to process the relevance of a patient’s presenting symptoms and get a list of different options for treating them, giving more time to listen the patient and discuss what suits them best. That would save both time and money. Patients wouldn’t have to tell their story again and again and it would reduce misdiagnoses.
New technology can also be applied to encouraging people to look after themselves and stay well for longer. Discovery, a South African car and health insurance company in South Africa is using financial rewards to get people to do the right thing. Tracking the number of times people eat healthy food and take exercise makes good commercial sense in a privatised health system. But the NHS cannot ignore the way in which new technologies can be used to make our nation healthier, eliminate waste and redirect NHS budgets to things we currently cannot afford.
So the really big question is who will benefit from the 4th Industrial Revolution. New technology has the potential to improve everyone’s wellbeing. How do we prevent the FANGs of tomorrow using new technology to gobble up their competitors and become near monopoly providers? And how can we ensure the savings made are equitably spread rather than increasing the gap between the haves and the have nots, not just in Wales but across the world?
National governments are increasingly frustrated by global companies that are bigger and more powerful than they are. Just as a global response is required to put an end to tax havens, we also need a global response to the new technology that increasingly dominates our brave new world. The European Parliament AI Charter is a good start. The irony of leaving the EU is not lost.
 When Machines Do Everything. How to Get Ahead in a World of Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data by Malcolm Frank. Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring. @2017 ISBN 978-1-11927867-2(ePDF)
 The Impact of AI in UK Constituencies, Future Advocacy Oct 2017
 European Parliamentary Research Service, Should we fear artificial intelligence?, March 2018, PE 614.547, Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2018/614547/EPRS_IDA(2018)614547_EN.pdf
 Jenny Rathbone is the Assembly Member for Cardiff Central
The latest shenanigans about Facebook and the harvesting of people’s personal data for commercial purposes reminds us that information technology...