Our no-nonsense Yorkshire approach to technology and AI

When The Terminator film came out in 1984 it was pure science fiction. One android’s relentless pursuit of an unlucky heroine as robots tried to wipe out the human race was entertaining but about as believable as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting.

Nearly 25 years later and it’s still make-believe, but now with a sting in the tail.

Last month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that we are seeing a revolution in technology and artificial intelligence (AI) – in plain English, machines which can solve problems and learn. But Brin, president of Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, warned: “Such powerful tools also bring with them new questions and responsibilities. How will they affect employment across different sectors… How might they manipulate people? Are they safe?”

A cynic might say that in the wake of the recent Facebook data-sharing scandal, this was part of Big Tech’s effort to regain damaged public trust. Even so, Brin has a point: technology is everywhere and is changing rapidly. We can’t just grin and hope for the best.

Anyone in business will tell you that a successful company or organisation has to be innovative. Stand still and you risk being left behind. We shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed by this. Bradford, Yorkshire and the North were built on innovation. And if we didn’t invent it, you can be sure we were among the first movers in adoption. Bradford led the way in the manufacturing of TV sets and operated the first regular motorised bus services.

The names of Bradford’s Victorian industrial giants like Titus Salt, Henry Ripley and Samuel Lister still echo on our streets and in the buildings that bear their names. Bradford gave the world great innovators in other fields like Margaret McMillan, the nursery education pioneer, and the Brontë sisters, the literary sensations. Radical in their own way, their impact is still felt today.

As the decades passed, many other innovators followed in their footsteps. Today, to name but a few, we have the turbo-charged BorgWarner, Denso Marston, inventor of the QR code, and Christeyns, pushing the boundaries in the science of detergents. New names are coming to the fore, like internet and software business EXA Networks, 3D printing firm Filamentive and Produmax, an aerospace engineering company.

Perhaps AI will be able to predict if any of these businesses will one day be as successful as Pace or Google. But what is clear is that the region’s top innovators enjoy a worldwide reputation; Bradford’s Redfern Travel was acquired by Australia’s Corporate Travel Management in 2016 after it caught someone’s eye down under.

In such rapidly changing times, we have to ensure that people don’t get left behind. Yes, this is a creative, entrepreneurial district and that may make us more resilient to the automation challenge, but we aren’t complacent. In my Yorkshire Post column last week I spoke about Bradford City Council’s work to encourage young people to become innovators through initiatives like the Industrial Centres of Excellence (ICE). We need to support working people in their 40s and 50s too. Upskilling is critical: the percentage of Bradford’s working age population without any qualifications is higher than the national average, and the percentage of our working age population qualified to degree level and above is lower than the national average.

A no-nonsense Yorkshire approach to tackling this is needed. The Bradford District Economic Strategy 2018-2030 sets out a plan to improve the skills of 48,000 city residents to NVQ 3 – the equivalent of two or more A-Levels – or above. But the country needs to put its hand in its pocket and invest in peoples’ education and skills to make this happen. We need also more control over what is happening in the city and to simplify local employment and skills provision to meet the needs of employers.

This is made more pressing by the fact that jobs that we take for granted today may not be here tomorrow. In 2015, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane – a Yorkshireman – warned that 15 million UK jobs could go as roles become automated.

We need to be optimistic but realistic about meeting these challenges. So enjoy watching The Terminator 6 when it arrives next year but take note of what Google’s co-founder says: AI is transforming the world. Let’s grasp the nettle and let Bradford determine its own fate.

  • Dave Baldwin is chairman of the Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley FC.

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