There is a lively debate at every business event about how machines could replace people in the workplace.
HR worry about how they will help tomorrow’s managers manage the machines, manufacturers are concerned at the cost and pace of change and health professionals are already increasingly reliant on the use of machines in operating theatres and accelerating the pace, accuracy and timing of diagnoses.
Closer to home, few of us can deny the everyday impact of machines and digital technologies on our lives. From mobile phones that can do everything, to internet banking, to not knowing if we are talking to a person or a robot in a call centre: we deal with machines every day.
So why do we keep having the debate about the robots coming? More perplexing, why is the debate so negative? Obviously, the threat of fewer jobs, less money and less work (but more leisure time) sounds scary but we have been here before (the first, second and third industrial revolutions) and shown an inherent human capacity to adapt and learn, survive then thrive.
The trouble with a robotic or totally digital world is that it is simultaneously a threat, an opportunity, a cost-effective solution to many untold problems or an escapist outlet (Candy Crush has made many a stealthy appearance in a boardroom near you) depending on your circumstances.
Scaremongering headlines and a perception that there is a lack of clarity about a national strategy for mass digitisation may stimulate the debate, but let’s not talk ourselves into a crisis. What we need is industry leaders to drive the national conversation about what we are already doing well and where synergies are required between state, academia and communities that enable industry to do even more.
That starts by accepting that the digital future is already here and is having a positive impact on our economy. Wales has a thriving digital SME sector, it is home to the global leader in semi-conductor technologies in IQe, Cardiff University Hospital leads the field in digital diagnostics in precision medicine. It hosts the largest cyber cluster of businesses in Europe and developments like the Computational Foundry and Software Academy keep pushing our talent to the forefront of the skills businesses need. Yet the population as a whole probably does not know what these things are, let alone why they are so important for Wales.
That makes it much harder to encourage our children to think of new careers and how they might prefer to work in the future - especially if we cannot understand the jobs and skills we already have and the areas that are desperately seeking more talent.
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The business community can make a real impact here. It has greater collective intelligence on what we are doing now and what is possible. It can promote a vision of what the future world of work may be like but also deliver life-long learning. This includes small businesses which probably need to be more digitally ready and more digitally agile than any other sector to survive in a highly competitive and fast paced world. It is not good enough to assume that a 3-person workforce starting out in a manual craft such as jewellery making can turn their back on technology such as 4D graphics and 3D printers. The problem is that these are expensive for SMEs. Could the solution lie in incentivising a larger company that uses the equipment 30 hours a week to allow an SME to use it for 15 hours?
However, industry cannot plan for a digital future in isolation, it needs skills and investment and that means other stakeholders need to get involved. Government, community providers and individuals need to plan to meet the challenges and think less about the future impact on jobs and more on the future impact on skills.
While there are conflicting views about the extent to which a digital future will cost jobs, there is agreement that the nature of work will continue to change, and the skills required will need to change too. As a nation we need to focus on that.
Wales must devise and set workforce standards that ensure the nation has a minimum (and rising) standard in levels of digital awareness and competence at every age and in every aspect of life. That requires digital connectivity and infrastructure.
We must also understand the reality of how ready we are for the digital world and recognise that we may be better equipped than we think. With the right data allowing analysis of need, capacity and capability at the right level (which is no longer national but regional and even sub-regional and by demographic group and industry sector) we can define the best way to get the skills we need and get the nation talking about embracing our digital future. That will give us a better chance to control our national destiny because there is one certainty, no one can stop the advance of the machines even if we wanted to.