Automation and Artificial Intelligence (Employment Opportunities)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Bill Bowman Bill Bowman Conservative

5. To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that an increasing use of automation and artificial intelligence over the next decade will increase employment opportunities in Scotland. (S5O-01758)

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of emerging technologies and how they will influence the future labour market. That is why I published our labour market strategy in August 2016 and why we established the strategic labour market group to provide advice on a range of matters, including automation and artificial intelligence.

In Scotland, we have record levels of employment and a highly skilled workforce, and we continue to encourage people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers through careers advice and guidance in schools and the developing the young workforce programme. Through the enterprise and skills strategic board, we are working to ensure that the planning and commissioning of our annual £2 billion investment in skills is better co-ordinated and more responsive.

We continue to support businesses to take advantage of new technologies and to advance their ability to integrate with data and digital. We are investing £48 million in the national manufacturing institute for Scotland, and we are providing support for innovation centres such as CENSIS—the centre of excellence for sensor and imaging systems—and the Data Lab.

Photo of Bill Bowman Bill Bowman Conservative

According to a recent report, almost a quarter of jobs in Dundee could be lost to automation by 2030. At 64.1 per cent, Dundee’s employment rate is already well below the average, and Dundee has the lowest employment rate of any city in the United Kingdom. An extra 10,000 jobs are needed just to put Dundee on a par with the rest of Britain. How will the minister create those 10,000 jobs? How many jobs has the Scottish Government created in Dundee since coming to power?

Photo of Ivan McKee Ivan McKee Scottish National Party

Self-drive automated vehicles are a specific technology that will have a significant impact on employment profiles, opportunities for industrial innovation and many other areas of public policy including planning, housing and environmental, energy and regulatory policy.

As the parliamentary liaison officer for the economy, I take a particular interest in that area. What work is the Scottish Government planning to prepare Scotland for that rapidly approaching technological revolution?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I assure Ivan McKee that I take an interest in the matter as well. It is critical that our workforce is adaptable, ready and responsive to changes in our economy and our labour market, as is likely to be the case through automation, and that we stand ready to benefit from opportunities by making sure that we are not just a consumer of new products and innovations but an inventor and producer of them. That is why we are taking forward developments such as the national manufacturing institute for Scotland, which I have referred to, and why we have supported innovation in Scotland by increasing support for research and development. Grant funding will increase by a total of £45 million over the next three years, which is an increase of almost 70 per cent.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am sure that the minister will join me in welcoming the opportunity that is presented by automation, but there are understandable concerns about potential job losses—about 230,000 Scottish jobs were identified as being at risk by the “Cities Outlook 2018” report. I ask the cabinet secretary: what specific forward planning has the Scottish Government done, beyond the list that he has read out? We will be reassured if he is working with businesses on that specific issue to mitigate job losses and create high-skilled, highly paid jobs for the people who may be displaced.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Jackie Baillie may have asked the cabinet secretary, but I will answer the question, if she does not mind.

I recognise the points that she has made and I hope that the answers that I have given thus far give a sense of the importance that we attach to that area. I have referred to the fact that our labour market strategy explicitly recognises the challenges that automation may bring. That is why we have established the strategic labour market group, which includes many representatives from industry who are willing to engage and discuss with anyone their perspectives on those matters.

We need a workforce that is adaptable, flexible and ready to respond to the challenging opportunities that are ahead. We are taking that work forward through initiatives such as our developing the young workforce strategy and the strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that we have laid out. We will continue in that work.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The physicist Stephen Hawking has said that the emergence of artificial intelligence could be

“the worst event in the history of our civilisation”.

Professor Kevin Warwick of Coventry University has tested network AI systems that cannot be switched off if they go rogue, which would be a particular problem for military applications for which AI is currently being developed. The Tesla car maker and space pioneer Elon Musk has asserted that AI is

“as big a threat to humanity as climate change or nuclear war”.

Those views may well be alarmist, but what safeguards are being developed with regard to artificial intelligence here in Scotland?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Far be it from me to disagree with Stephen Hawking, but Kenneth Gibson is correct in saying that those views may be somewhat alarmist. However, I recognise that concern and it is incumbent on us not only to consider the potential impact on the labour market but to hear those concerns. We will work in conjunction with industry and academia to gain a full understanding of future technologies and to make informed judgments about the move to greater automation in the labour market and the introduction of artificial intelligence.

I know the report that Bill Bowman refers to, and I recognise what it says about the potential impact of the increased utilisation of automation. Of course, there are other reports that provide different assessments.

That said, I recognise that a lot of good things are happening in Dundee right now. When I am there, I am pleased to see the investment that is being made and the regeneration, particularly of the waterfront, that is driving an increase in jobs growth. Indeed, the report that Mr Bowman referred to highlights that Dundee has one of the strongest growth rates for private sector jobs. Just a few moments ago, we heard from the cabinet secretary about our commitment to progress the Tay cities regional deal as soon as possible. We are making every effort to ensure that Dundee continues to benefit from this Government’s efforts to give people in Scotland the chance to get into the labour market.