Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Robots are coming - Wales needs a plan for automation

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales on 17th January 2018

"And we will build brutal energy cut into a much better home. It’s a movement toward the beautiful legal scams and better share.

And it was a gingly deal and I don’t think they’re never worth in the middle deal... to be parted to Mexico.

Not the most inspiring opening to a speech, I’ll admit. But what sets this opening apart, is what sets this debate apart….It was written by a robot".

A gimmick carried out by the New Yorker last year. They fed 270,000 words spoken by Donald Trump into a computer program that studies language patterns. It analyzed his word choice and grammar, and learnt how to simulate Trump's speech.

It doesn't totally make sense, but then neither does Trump.

Although I like the term ‘gingly deal’ I don’t think it’s yet part of popular lexicon…

But I opened with it because I wanted to bring the abstract, quickly into the real.

Until now automation and robotics has been largely confined to manufacturing industries, but the exponential growth in the application of artificial intelligence will now hit every industry, every profession. Doctors, accountants, lawyers, translators...Any role that has a repetitive element, is likely to be impacted.

It is estimated that around 700,000 jobs in Wales will be hit by automation. And we need to mobilise to prepare people for the change that is coming.

And it's a big change. Indeed, analysts have compared the impact of artificial intelligence with the arrival of electricity in the late nineteenth and early 20th Century - it’s that big a shift.

The technology writer Luke Dormehl has used the parallel to help us get our heads around the scale of change we are facing. That was a profoundly disruptive change that interrupted the regular biological rhythms of life - electric light allowed people for the first time to create their own schedules for work and play so night and day no longer mattered.

And it unleashed a chain reaction of innovation. The network of wires ushered in a slew of connected devices that created industries and changed lives forever.

It’s that scale of profound change that we are on the cusp of again. Right now we are in the ‘early adopter’ stages of the artificial intelligence revolution, but we can discern an outline shape of the type of change that’s ahead of us.

I was blown away by the robot who is able to cook a meal just by being shown a ‘how to cook’ video on YouTube without any direct human input. Researchers at the University of Maryland did this experiment two years ago. They are now planning on how to use similar deep learning in areas like military repair.

Elon Musk at Tesla thinks a car manufacturing factory without any human workers is within reach. Amazon are trialling a shop without workers, where you are automatically billed when you leave the store.

These are all game-changers. Changing the way we behave - Amazon, Airbnb and Uber all demonstrating how quickly technology can change how we shop, sleep and move from A to B.

And they are up-ending business models in the process. You won’t find the largest global retailer on the High St. The world’s largest accommodation provider doesn’t own a single hotel. And the largest taxi firm doesn’t own a single car.

As the Director of the CBI in Wales points out in an article today in 2004, Blockbuster had 84,000 employees and had revenues of $6bn. In 2016, just 12 years later, Netflix employed 4,500 and made $9bn.

It's called disruptive change for a reason.

And its evolving quickly. The early days of the internet was about tasks - like finding information or listening to music. But now technology is moving to anticipate our needs.

Innovation expert Alec Ross points out that robots used to be stand-alone machines carrying out basic tasks. Now they are connected to the Cloud, and are learning as they go, not just from their own experiences, but because they can be linked to every other similar machine across the world, they learn from each other and adapt in real-time.

He calls it a “quantum leap for the cognitive development of robots.” It’s the equivalent of you and I being able to tap into the combined brain power of every other human on earth to make a decision, and to do so in a split second - imagine how much smarter we’d be, imagine how much better our decisions would be. That’s what’s happening with robots.

It is extraordinary.

And it also terrifying for an economy like ours that has a disproportionate number of jobs that are vulnerable to automation. But this change is unstoppable and we must get our heads round it, and adapt.

I wouldn't swap my digital alarm clock for a knocker-upper. Just as nobody would turn back the clock to a world lit by candlelight. Nor horsepower. So, too, we shouldn’t try to halt automation. We should harness it.

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men”, Charles De Gaulle famously said.

Of course it's human nature to resist change. None of us wants to face up to the fact that our job may be made obsolete.

But it is our responsibility to ensure this wilful blindness is not replicated at a national level.

When Gerry Holtham recently suggested at an IWA event we might get rid of GPs altogether because technology could do their job for them, the professions jumped on him. Both the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians denounced him.

Like the Guilds of craftsmen from days of old - which orchestrated the banishment of William Lee, the inventor of the knitting machine, in 1589 - we must not let their desire to protect their trades stop us from harnessing these changes. “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects” Queen Elizabeth I told him.

Let’s be clear, the threat of job losses will pale into insignificance to what will happen if we don’t take advantage of the possibilities.

We know there are a shortage of Doctors, and that demand is rising. And public spending is falling. We also know that many of the new technologies are more accurate than humans, and that patients in many cases would prefer to be diagnosed by a machine. So let’s free up overworked medics to do what only they can do, and let’s harness technology.

And this is my plea in this afternoon’s debate. If we face up to the enormity of the change that is upon us, we can use it to improve public services, to free people from dangerous or routine tasks.

But if we hold back there’s a danger that the down-sides of change will dominate the debate, creating a climate of fear.

AToS and other consultancies are as we speak touting themselves around cash-strapped Councils offering to save millions by cutting routine jobs and replacing them with automated processes. If we allow this approach to take hold all talk of automation will be seen by the workforce as a cost-cutting approach.

And it needn’t be. If we harness it we can use new labour-saving devices to free up staff to work on the front line, to improve public services - that’s the debate we need to have. And Government needs to mobilise - right across its whole breadth - to face up to how we can use these new technologies to help tackle the problems we know we face.

In Education - we need to ensure that we’re preparing young people for roles that do not yet exist. And we need to be mindful that many of these changes are coming in the next 10 - 20 years. I don’t know about you, but I still hope to be gainfully employed in my fifties.

We must think about training for those already in work, too.

In the economy - Ken Skates’ new economic strategy recognises the productivity gains that can be made through encouraging the adoption of automation. But we need to be smart in how we apply this new criteria. Inevitably Government will end up giving financial assistance to make firms more resilient which may lead to some jobs going. But when that happens we must make sure the companies are helping those who are displaced to up-skill - to be redeployed, rather than made redundant.

In finance - the evolution of blockchain technology offers us an opportunity to be totally transparent in how we spend public money.

And in rural Wales - we must seize the opportunities presented by big data to not only transform how we farm and produce food, but also position Wales at the forefront of this emerging precision agriculture industry.

In local government, we must follow the example of other cities that have gone smart - trialling real-time data driven services such as smart-parking, smart-refuse collection and smart-lighting.

There are huge opportunities in healthcare to improve patient care and outcomes:

From therapeutic robots that can help deal with our loneliness crisis; to sensors that can track if people are missing meals or behaviour is becoming more erratic - helping dementia patients remain independent in their own homes for longer; contact lenses capable of measuring glucose levels that can then trigger the injection of insulin via a pain-free patch; and smart hospital machinery that can alert nurses to real-time changes in patient’s vital signs, ensuring that changes in condition are picked up immediately, rather than periodically, and leaving nurses free to focus on other aspects of patient care.

Actually, if we look at the implantable technologies coming our way, these are just the tip of the iceberg.

This is a cross-Government agenda - relevant to every Cabinet Secretary.

These innovations will save money, and they’ll improve the quality of public services.

But these are all examples of technologies that are already out of date - and we haven't adopted them.

Where are we in Wales? We’re not even in the foothills of this.

The NHS is the biggest purchaser of fax machines! And the two reports issued in the last week - the Wales Audit office report on informatics, and yesterday's Parliamentary review, painfully highlight that we are way way behind. The Government needs to be radical here. We not only need new systems, we need new cultures and new leadership to bring about this transformation.

And as technology evolves, people will come to increasingly expect to be able to access the services they need, when and where they need it.

If I can’t see a doctor and Babylon Healthcare is giving me the chance to talk to one online for £25 chances are I’m going to take it.

If we fail to keep pace with public expectation, and private providers step in, it could threaten the very foundations of our public services.

This is a huge challenge for Government, especially since we are fighting on so many other fronts. Local Government is almost paralysed by austerity and central Government by Brexit. And its constraining our ability to respond to a rapidly evolving environment. But our Future Generation Act demands that we face up to these long-term challenges.

Llywydd - Wales needs a plan.

We need a unit in FM’s office dedicated to horizon-scanning new developments and rapidly experimenting with new approaches to benefit public service delivery, and encourage the growth of new industries in the private sector.

I’ll close with a quote from a report by the World Economic Forum - an organisation not known for its alarmist views:

“The individual, organizational, governmental and societal adjustments are not trivial, and everyone will feel their impact. The speed of various aspects of the transition is hard to predict, but it is not difficult to see that the world will function quite differently 10 to 15 years from now. Being prepared to navigate the transition begins with awareness of the shifts to come, and some understanding of their implications.”

Sunday, 17 December 2017

A Metro for the Llanelli area

Speech delivered in the National Assembly on 13th December 2017

Yesterday the Cabinet Secretary told the Assembly that demand for public transport is predicted to grow by 150% in the next 13 years. If that’s correct then it is vital that we make the investment now to ensure that there is attractive alternative to car use in place.

Evidence from the most successful Cities across the world - where public transport is thriving - is that people will use buses and trains if they are easy to use.

Passengers need to be able to turn up and go.

But in many of the communities I represent, people’s experience of public transport is very different. They turn up, and it’s gone.

We’ve got bus services like the L1 from Morfa to Llanelli, which stop at 4pm

If you live in Kidwelly or Trimsaran there are just 3 services a day to Llanelli. And the last bus from Tumble leaves at half past six.

There are just four trains a day from Bynea to Swansea. And if instead you take the number 16 bus it will take nearly two hours - a trip you can make by car in 30 minutes

My constituents have been telling me that when they do take public transport it often turns up late, the heating will have packed up, or buses will only accept exact change.

Now that’s not most people’s experience, but anecdotal evidence like this is commonly cited by people who drive as a reason for not using public transport.

And if they can be persuaded to give it a try, it only takes a couple of bad experiences to put them off for good.

There is cross-party support to build the Metro systems. Our motion today welcomes the commitment to taking forward the Cardiff and the valleys Metro; the pledge to develop one in Northeast Wales; and for a study of one for the Swansea Bay city region.

I am holding a meeting with businesses in my constituency in Llanelly House on Friday to build support for the Metro in my region, and to get ideas of how to shape it to make things better for the communities I represent.

We quickly need detailed blueprints for all three Metro projects, and for these to be ambitious. Not just good services for the main towns and cities, but to reach out and link-in out-lying communities.

It is crucial too that we design a Metro with the whole journey in mind - door to door. So as well as buses and trains we need to think about how this links with walking and cycling for the journeys to and from stations.

Otherwise we could end up blowing a huge pile of money on a series of massive car parks at each station.

The research shows that people who use public transport walk and cycle more than those who do not because they use active travel at each end. We need to extend that by building in attractive walking and cycling infrastructure - including secure cycle storage - to link the stations with where people live.

The central design principle for all the Metro systems is that we need to make the passenger experience easy and comfortable. Unless we make it attractive to people who are used to travelling in a car of their own we are never going to achieve modal shift.

Right. So far, so familiar

The purpose of today’s debate, however - I hope - is for us to look at Metros differently. To look beyond its transport benefits to its wider regeneration ones too.

By improving transport connections to key settlements we are opening up the potential for bringing other benefits to those areas as well.

When a service improves, or a new station is built, the value of nearby land tends to increase as it becomes a more attractive place to build.

Businesses are drawn in not just to the individual metro station, but to the large urban centres that are now within easy reach at the end of the line - increasing their talent pool exponentially.

And it helps the unemployed, and the under-employed too, by making more jobs accessible - regardless of whether they have a car.

We know that those on the lowest incomes can spend a quarter of their income of running a car to get access to work. Affordable public transport can help remove that barrier to employment.

These potential benefits are well established.

But we’ve misread this potential as being inevitable.

With these new Metro systems - as well as getting the mechanics right - we need to make sure that - from the outset - we build in the additional levers that are needed to ensure that as we upgrade the transport system we lock-in the wider benefits that this investment will create.

For people to take advantage of the new jobs that will be accessible to them, not only do we need to ensure they have the transport means to access these new jobs, but that they have the qualifications, too.

This mustn’t be a broad-brush approach, but a targeted one.

But can I ask the Cabinet Secretary - where is the analysis of what new jobs will be accessible?

And of which specific new employers might be attracted to these communities as a result of a new metro station?

It’s only with this analysis that we can see where the skills gaps are, and how the existing population can be supported to meet these skills gaps - so we aren’t simply importing talent, we’re developing it.

On land prices, if we are to prevent profits falling only to private landlords and homeowners, Transport for Wales must have the power to act as a development corporation - with the ability to capitalise on rising land values in areas close to metro stations - so that they can lever in further funding to expand the metro network.

And in terms of attracting new businesses, what measures are in place to ensure new businesses increase the social value - not just shareholder value?

Will the appearance of a new Tesco metro put existing local businesses at risk? And could alternative approaches boost - rather than undermine - the existing foundational economies.

All of this needs to considered and designed in.

The Welsh Government needs to make sure Transport for Wales has all the tools, and the direction, to design Metro systems that don’t just improve public transport but change the life chances of the people in the areas we represent.

This is not just a project for engineers to play with buses and trains, and Ministers must make sure the different portfolios come together to capture this opportunity.


Metro Debate - 13/12/17

Wednesday 13 December 2017


Lee Waters (Llanelli)
David Melding (South Wales Central)
Nick Ramsay (Monmouth)
David Rees (Aberavon)
Jenny Rathbone (Cardiff Central)
Julie Morgan (Cardiff North)
Mick Antoniw (Pontypridd)
Mike Hedges (Swansea East)
Hefin David (Caerphilly)
Suzy Davies (South Wales West)

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Recognises the importance of a modern public transport network to relieve pressure on Wales’s road network.

2. Notes the evidence that a fully integrated public transport system - including active travel - is needed to provide a practical and attractive alternative to car use.

3. Welcomes the commitment to the first stages of a south Wales metro.

4. Endorses the commitment to develop a vision for a north-east Wales metro, and the allocation of funding for the development of a strategic outline case for a Swansea Bay metro, and calls on the Welsh Government to identify funding for full feasibility studies as a next step.

5. Believes Transport for Wales must have the power to act as a development corporation - with the ability to capitalise on rising land values in areas close to metro stations - in order to lever in further funding to expand the metro network.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Leaving children behind

Column in Llanelli Herald on 8th December 2017

Fear of change, and the unknown, is something that we can all relate to - children, in particular, experience change on a daily basis, which is necessary for their development, but can also be very stressful for them.

Take moving home. Few children live in the same house for their whole childhood; most move several times, often to new towns and to new schools. Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. Unpredictable changes, however, can chip away at their sense of security and leave the child feeling anxious and less able to cope with what life throws at them.

It saddened me, then, to read that here in Carmarthenshire, looked after children are moved between homes more frequently than they are in any other local authority, with one child in six having been placed in more than three homes in a single year. And this is not just a change of house, remember - this is often to a different family, in a different town and to a different school.

When I was chair of governors at a primary school a few years back, I was responsible for looked after children, and it was heartbreaking that often just as we were beginning to establish a relationship with a child, they would be moved with no prior warning at all.

So I was immensely pleased to get the Assembly's powerful Public Accounts Committee to agree to a rolling programme of investigations into the way that we support children in care. One of the issues I hope the enquiry will be looking at is how this constant state of flux has on looked-after children’s chances in life.

Currently, the statistics for looked after children are outrageous. Consider this - only 23% of looked after children in Wales achieved five GCSEs at C and above, 43% of looked after children are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training),  and a child in the care of the state is more likely to go to prison than to university.  But where’s the outcry? These children get dealt a terrible lot in life and we can’t allow it to continue.

All children have a right to a healthy and safe childhood, and the chance to reach their full potential. Our ambition must be to make sure that looked after children have the same opportunities as everyone else.

How can we improve town centres?

Column in Llanelli Star on 1 December 2017

What can we do to breathe new life into Llanelli town centre? I know what a lot of people will answer - bring in free parking. And whilst this may be the answer that first springs to mind, I don’t think it’s the whole solution.

Our town centre has had problems ever since the focus shifted from the high street to out-of-town retail locations - where the biggest brands unite around a sprawling car park. Yet, even though large regeneration projects outside London still go hand-in-hand with car parking, research shows that large numbers of shoppers arrive by public transport. Bus services are particularly important.

Town centres are more likely to thrive if they’re easy to get to using any mode of transport, so it makes sense that offering a reliable and affordable public transport system is worth the investment.

And it’s worth noting that ‘free’ car parking isn’t actually ever free. Someone will always have to pay. In Carmarthenshire alone the cost of providing free car parking would amount to £5 million a year. What if we used that money somewhere, or somehow, else?

I‘d argue that a decent public transport system - like the one Mark Barry has set out for the Swansea Bay Metro - would be a good place to start. And it is this that I want to focus on when I hold my business summit at Llanelly House in a couple of weeks’ time. Done right, the Swansea Bay Metro has the potential open up job opportunities, bring in new customers, connect the urban and rural areas of our community and to attract new businesses and investment.

I don’t believe there is ever so a thing as an economic silver bullet - that one, transformative project that will instantly change all our fortunes. But if we want to encourage people to visit Llanelli regularly and spend money in our shops, we need to do everything we can to make that easier for them. This includes having a well-designed and affordable public transport system that gives people the freedom and ability to travel. And offers us all the option of leaving the car at home.

NOTES:  The Business Summit to discuss the Swansea Bay Metro will take place at 2.30pm on Friday 15th December at Llanelly House.

There's no magic bullet

Column in the Llanelli Star on 29th November 2017

I'm really pleased to be joining the Assembly’s Economy committee - trying to find new ways to get jobs into the Llanelli constituency is one of the main reasons I stood to be an Assembly Member. 

Let’s not pretend that this is going to be an easy task. It isn’t. And, while we’re talking about it, let’s not only focus on Llanelli town centre when the Llanelli constituency extends to Trimsaran, Pontyberem, Ponthenri, Llannon, Tumble, Cross Hands, Tycroes and Hendy.

These are rural communities where there are more older and lower-income people with fewer options for getting out and about, and where accessing decent jobs can be a real challenge. That’s why we see so many young people upping sticks to get work elsewhere. And why they almost never come back.

Like everyone, people in rural and small town communities rely on transport to get to jobs, schools, medical appointments, nights out, shops and services. The difference is they’ve got much further to go, and all-too-often they’re left with limited travel options. It seems so unfair to me that some people miss out on so much either because they can’t drive or because they can’t afford a car.

That’s why I’m excited by the proposals being touted by Mark Barry - the man behind the Cardiff Metro - for a similar set up to be introduced to the Swansea Bay area. Proper investment in public transport could generate significant benefits for the rural communities in the Llanelli constituency - not least because it’ll help ensure new jobs created through schemes like the Swansea Bay City Deal will be within everyone’s reach.

I don’t believe there is a ‘magic bullet’ - and if I hear of one more project being labelled ‘transformative’, I will scream. But I do think that a decent public transport system - like the one Mark Barry has set out for the Swansea Bay Metro - has the potential to open up job opportunities, bring in new customers, connect the urban and rural areas of our community and to attract new businesses and investment.

Nowhere is this more important than in rural and small town communities. 

Saving green spaces

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 22nd November 2017

I read a report recently, which said that people recover faster in a hospital when they have a bed with a garden view, than when their window faces onto a wall of adjoining buildings. It brought home to me the importance of green space in our lives.

In a lot of ways, it’s how we develop a sense of community in the first place. Saturday afternoons in the park with a book, a football, a picnic; a bike ride, a long walk with the dog, a bag of chips or an ice-cream on a wooden bench taking in the view. We all like to spend time outside where open spaces, natural surroundings and the interactions these bring with others help to calm our minds, keep us active and increase our happiness.

I’ve recently moved house, and one of the things that first attracted me to my new home was how close it is to Parc Howard. A short walk and I’m in one of Llanelli town’s gems.

What a shame then that so many of our precious green spaces are at risk. We are living through a time when demand for new housing has never been higher and it is absolutely right that we  build new houses for our younger generation. But, given that housing is the biggest driver of change in the loss of green space, isn’t it time for housing developers to make sure that gardens and parks are central to their developments?

Like most people, some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing outside. But with increased traffic on the road, parks closing or being neglected due to public cuts and new houses being built with much smaller gardens, today’s children may not experience that same sense of freedom and independence.

And once green space has been lost, we can never get it back. This is why I asked the council to look at brownfield sites for the new Ysgol Dewi Sant instead of digging up another precious piece of public space. Yes, the school needs a new building, but the loss of Llanerch Fields is at a cost.

Children deserve a place to play, they need fresh air and exercise, and they don’t ask for much. When questioned by community members on what they would like to see in Parc Howard, children responded overwhelmingly with a request for a field to kick a ball around in. The families of the new Parc-Y-Strade housing development are demanding nothing more than the children’s play area that they believe were on the developer’s original plans. Councillors in Tyisha ward, one of the poorest in Wales, want just one park for its children.

Green spaces seem to have become a perk. I think that they are still crucial to our lives.

Remembering Sarge

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 15th November 2017

The death of my colleague Carl Sargeant has hit me like a tonne of bricks.

Carl’s suicide was a tragedy. The circumstances surrounding it are now thankfully the subject of an independent enquiry led by a QC, so I won’t get into my views on this other than to say that mistakes were clearly made and it’s important that this is properly examined.

Suicide is now the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK (Carl was 49). In 2016, men accounted for 82% of all suicides in Wales.

Bereavement has a devastating effect on families, friends and colleagues. In cases of bereavement by suicide, feelings of devastation, incomprehension and guilt are often magnified with the impact felt across communities and generations.

I know all of us in the Labour group in the Assembly are dumbfounded by what happened, and in his own community there is a lot of anger and upset. I completely understand this, and hope that with time, and with the answers that I hope will flow from the inquiry, they will get some peace of mind.

Carl was the centre of his community. He was the Assembly Member for Alyn & Deeside in Flintshire, and someone who still lived on the council estate in Connah's Quay where he was raised.

He was not an off-the-peg politician. He was rare in modern politics to rise from the factory floor, without a University education, to the cabinet table. And he was living proof that you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life; he was an able Minister and held the record for being the Cabinet Minister to pass the most laws in our Welsh Parliament since its inception.

I first met him in 2003 when I was a journalist and he had just been selected as a candidate for the Assembly election that year. He was a mobile DJ doing discos in his area and didn't seem like a typical AM, but as I quickly observed in his early years in the Assembly he had a natural knack for people and politics.

When I became Director of the green transport charity Sustrans Cymru and led the campaign for a law to ensure a network of paths for walking and cycling he was the Minister I had to persuade. We developed a respect for each other but he was no push-over.

When I became the candidate in Llanelli he came to campaign for me and was brilliant on the doorstep - he was just himself, warm, natural and funny.

We had a lovely visit to a pensioner on Bigyn Road in Llanelli who had benefited from a home installation project he had championed, and a great morning at the Links mental health charity on Queen Victoria Road where he shared with the people there how he had begun to crochet to help him deal with his own feelings of stress and minor depression.

His death hasn’t fully sunk in for me yet. But I know I’ll miss him, and so will Welsh politics.