Robotics & AI - why the UK must stage a skills intervention

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 23, 2021
A new white paper on plugging the robotics and AI skills gap in the UK is published, but what’s really needed is a complete change of attitude.

Image of a robot hand and a human hand touching
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

First some old news. Widespread adoption of autonomous systems is a necessity for 21st century economic success, and the UK must realize the cost and efficiency benefits of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). So says a new white paper, 

Preparing the Workforce for 2030, from the UK-RAS Network - the unit within Britain's Economic and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that deals with robotics and autonomous systems.

These and other ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution' (4IR) technologies, such as the IoT, edge systems, and more, present a "golden opportunity" to reshore manufacturing from China and elsewhere, while boosting the UK's flatlining productivity and output. 

All things that we've heard before; but the problem is Britain lacks the right skills to capitalize on this opportunity - so much so that an intervention is necessary to plug the gap, says the paper.

Surveys from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and others certainly show that the UK is lagging its industrial competitors, with a robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 human workers) that is lower than the OECD average. 

And this is despite the aims of the Industrial Strategy - the clear, timely, well-considered document that was abandoned in March in favour of a tactical ‘Plan for Growth' (aka ‘make money any which way you can').

The Innovation Strategy, announced on 22 July as one pillar of the Plan for Growth, is a welcome statement of the UK's ambitions to be a world leader in science and tech, but does little to fix the UK's core problems, which include a longstanding lack of skills and persistently underpowered central investment.

The world's top five markets for industrial robots remain China, Japan, the US, South Korea (the world's most automated nation), and Germany, with two out of every three new installations being in Asia - which is already the world's manufacturing hub.

To compete with that, the UK urgently needs to stop navel-gazing and modernize, and recognize from highly automated countries that human employment generally remains high after adopting these systems (at least, that was the case pre-pandemic). The reason is that 4IR technologies create new jobs, including highly skilled ones, cut costs, and increase productivity.

That said, 2019 figures from the IFR show that demand for industrial robots fell by 12 percent in that year after six years of stellar growth, reflecting the difficult times faced by the automotive and electronics manufacturing sectors, particularly in the wake of Trump's trade war with China. By contrast, the world market for service robots - including logistics, warehouse, cleaning, medical, and public-facing robots - grew by 32 percent year on year.

Stymied by a lack of skills

Opportunities abound in all these areas, but only if the UK has the right skills - technical, managerial, and otherwise - to grab them. Therefore, the focus of the white paper isn't the bot on the factory floor, it's the skills and education needed to work alongside 4IR technologies in the tough decade ahead.

So, what are the key problems? The paper says:

Some of the most burning issues facing us include: a lack of practical hands-on experience of robotics and technical skills at all education levels; limited management understanding of emerging technologies; failure to address diversity and inclusion; and an education system that is struggling to provide the skillsets required by employers.

A further concern is the current ‘hub-with-no-spokes' knowledge and skills diffusion network, in which the excellence of our universities and best-performing companies too often fails to impact and support the emerging SME sector and others far from the centre.

It's worth bearing in mind that 99 percent of all UK companies are SMEs.

New government initiatives such as the National Retraining Scheme, the Apprenticeship Levy, and the Skills Toolkit show "a government willingness to address these challenges and offer genuine encouragement that the UK can close the skills gap", says UK-RAS - assuming that such schemes can be funded and scaled sufficiently.

That's no minor caveat: in 2016, Japan announced central government funding for robotics and AI that was 200 times larger than the sums announced by the UK in the same year.

Another report this year has highlighted 4IR skills challenges. In May, Ipsos Mori surveyed 118 companies for the government and found that data science and artificial intelligence skills are lacking in the UK jobs market, with many vacancies being left unfilled.

Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said plans were stymied by a lack of candidates with technical AI skills and 32 percent by a lack of non-technical skills. Other barriers to employment include a dearth of work experience and poor industry sector knowledge.

Significantly for the UK-RAS paper, the report found that most firms are unlikely to hire junior staff through internships (just 11 percent did) or apprenticeships (just three percent). So, it's not that the machines are taking human jobs; it's that humans lack the skills to work with them!

Lack of diversity remains a massive challenge too, found Ipsos Mori. Fifty-three percent of the firms surveyed employed no women in AI or data science roles, and 40 percent no ethnic minorities. However, according to UK-RAS the situation is worse in STEM careers overall. The white paper says:

Though many of the early pioneers of computing were female, women now account for only 20 percent of the STEM workforce. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering workers in Europe, at less than 10 percent. Engineering, robotics, electronics, and AI are dominated by men in the boardroom as much as the factory floor.

As well as male, the STEM workforce is overwhelmingly white and able-bodied - which again only provides a shallow pool of skills, backgrounds, and opinions for employers. […] Although ethnic minority groups are better represented proportionally than their white counterparts in STEM degrees, fewer go on to successful STEM careers. The situation has failed to improve over the last five years.

This speaks of an active denial of opportunity to groups who are well qualified.

All of which brings us to the interventions that UK-RAS believes are vital to position the UK for the future. Among other things, the organization advocates providing free public access to high-end robotics resources - digital/virtual and actual - to help provide the tangible experience of these technologies that the workforce needs.

Robotics Learning Factories, inspired by models such as FabLabs, Newton Rooms, and the manufacturing Learning Factories, that have been so successful in Germany, the US, and Scandinavia, can be linked to local mini-hubs situated in libraries or other public buildings.

Bridging between educational levels, supported by industry, and harnessing technologies such as digital twinning, 5G, and tele-operation, this network of facilities would provide accessible learning experiences that accurately reflect emerging work settings.

An intervention of this kind would be timely, affordable, scalable, and could be realized quickly to help address the skills gap and position the UK as a leading economy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It's an attitude problem

Great ideas, but the UK's problems won't be solved by putting robot demonstrators in public libraries, comforting idea though that may be.

Part of the challenge is cultural and deep-seated: a fear of technology coming to steal jobs that has been whipped up by the tabloids. They ignore the unfilled vacancies, plus 2018 statistics from the World Economic Forum which predict that robotics, automation, AI, and other 4IR systems will provide a net gain of 58 million jobs worldwide from new markets, new ventures, and new efficiencies.

Another challenge is the conflation of different technologies - industrial and service robots, autonomous systems, AI, machine learning, automation software, RPA/digital employees, the IoT, edge technology, analytics, digital twins, et al - in reports/white papers that are reported in the media as being about robots. This perpetuates the absurd myth that C-3PO will be sitting at your desk, while the real issues are code, automation, applications, data, ethics, and management. Educating the media would be a start.

Other challenges are rooted in the education sector, riven as it is by constant upheaval, targets, and political interference that have failed to address its poor design for the new multi-disciplinary, flexible, adaptable world of work. We encourage our youth to tick boxes and flounder in debt, rather than furnish them with the skills and investment they need to succeed. Students are our future, not grist to the financial services mill.

Arguably, therefore, the IT skills gap exists because the UK has been taught to be critical of new technology, but not to think critically about the tasks at hand, nor to collaborate on mutually beneficial solutions to the nation's - and the world's - problems.

Tech marketers, consultants, and evangelists please note, critical thinking isn't the same as ‘criticizing things'; it means thinking deeply about the reality of things from multiple angles. Critical thinking means ignoring hype, certainly, but it doesn't mean being pessimistic.

The UK's other problem is its legacy: the 19th Century, top-down, ‘you work for us' approach of the Victorian industrialists lingers in our collective subconscious - a problem worsened by a government that likes to invoke the spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister talks embarrassing nonsense about "limbless chickens", Alexa "stamping her foot", and "pink-eyed Terminators" when setting out the UK's technology vision.

None of this inspires world confidence or helps the UK to build a modern economy and succeed in it, despite its undoubted excellence in many fields, including robotics, AI, and autonomous systems.

I put these issues to one of the white paper's authors, Richard Waterstone, co-Lead of SERAS, the UK-RAS robotics skills and education group, and MD of Sheffield-based consultancy Cyberselves Universal.

First, why has the UK been talking about the skills gap for 25 years, but hasn't closed it? Has talking about the skills gap become an industry in itself? He said:

It is definitely an ongoing problem, and it's manifesting itself more and more with the acceleration of 4IR. We've taken our eye off the ball. And there's been a lack of investment, plus austerity - without wanting to go into politics too much - but a general lack of preparedness for the future workplace. And obviously a lack of investment and everything that goes along with that.

Waterstone added that a "huge number" of the companies interviewed for the white paper couldn't find the training courses they needed. As a result, only a small percentage of the funds available for upskilling/reskilling are being spent. He continued:

Automation is coming, whether we like it or not. But this amazing confluence of 4IR technologies will create different-looking jobs. We won't necessarily need an army of coders, but people with a better understanding of technology and a facility with it.

Over three-quarters of the people who will be working with these technologies are in the workforce now, so we need to give them more of a hands-on experience of the technology, to demystify it, and encourage more people to embrace it.

So, what does he believe are the critical skills that we need to capitalize on these opportunities?

First, problem solving - creative problem-solving, I'd certainly put that at number one. ‘Make, learn, share' is another way of putting it - making things and publicly sharing them and not having a fear of failure.

I think the second skill is collaboration, teamwork. A lot of employers say that they're really looking for people who work well in teams. And on the back of that, diversity in STEM and engineering.

And third, digital literacy combined with critical thinking. There are different ways of framing a subject like computer science - not just computational thinking, but also critical thinking to draw more people in. Then they might be less wary of jumping into the future.

My take

At a recent Westminster eForum on AI policy, Professor Dame Wendy Hall observed that we need to blend disciplines and learn from different industries - to come out of our silos, as consultants love to say at conferences.

I'd argue that some silos are useful, in that they contain depth, experience, and expertise. But in the spirit of her expert advice, here's something I picked up from one of my micro-careers: music. While speaking to engineers at some of the UK's top studios for a book a few years ago, I asked what skills young, ambitious people need to flourish in that industry.

All the interviewees said the same thing: "The last thing we look for is someone who can sit at home on their own with a laptop and an application, because anyone can learn to do that. What we look for is the ability to work with, to collaborate, with people in the real world."

The problem is we have all fallen into silos individually and are communicating with less and less signal, and more and more noise. We need to collaborate to solve problems critically and collectively. Plus, we need to value some silos more, not less: containers of depth, expertise, sector knowledge, and experience.

We all need to wake up.

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