Ladies and gentlemen

These days, people could be forgiven for thinking that digital has changed everything that they know.

Smartphones, mobile internet, online shopping.

Artifical intelligence services, your documents in a personal cloud.

You can have all of these in your pocket, use them on the go.

On the way to work, and as a way to get to work.

Then, just as people get to grips with one new technology, another comes along.

Faster, with extra functionality, more imagination.

It can be hard to keep up with the latest developments in tech.

It just moves so quickly.

Many would say that is what makes it exciting.

But many others feel frightened, a little out of control, afraid that humans will be overtaken. In Europe, opinion polls show that 70% of people worry that a robot will take their job.

Some even fear mass unemployment because of a looming robotics revolution. These concerns are completely understandable.

We cannot - and should not - ignore them.

But it is inevitable that some jobs will change. Some will also disappear.

However, I do not believe in the mass unemployment scenario.

The scenario I believe in is one of innovation, adaptation and new skills.

Before the Industrial Revolution, farmers worked six full days a week just to keep their crops growing.

The intensity and necessity of agricultural labour made farming the largest employment source in Europe.

Today, farmers represent only 4.4% of total employment in the EU.

Agriculture is, by the way, at the forefront of technological change and use of data, artifical intelligence and the Internet of Things.

These future-oriented technologies can support global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I am thinking of clean power, smart transport systems as well as smart cities and homes. Sustainable production and consumption, sustainable land use.

For example, virtual power plants interlinked via the cloud, using the Internet of Things to aggregate energy sources including solar panels or energy storage installations.

These could then be improved via big data and machine learning.

Or, as the World Bank noted recently, the combination of big data analytics with smart meters and IoT devices will support new-generation climate markets.

But to return to employment.

Despite many studies over the years, I do not think anybody really knows how much digital change affects jobs. It also depends largely on each sector.

As the OECD has said - among others - many jobs will be changed in some way thanks to digital advances.

Others will be displaced, in the same way as elevator and phone operators were displaced in the past.

New jobs will be created as digitisation raises productivity, but they will probably not be the same as those disappearing.

It is sometimes easy to forget that by helping with repetitive, unpleasant or dangerous tasks at home and at work, robots improve daily life.

They allow workers to carry out better and more rewarding activities.

Surely that is a plus, not a minus.

We should remember too that Europeans are ageing, shrinking the workforce.

So some job replacement may be helpful –to raise productivity, and to maintain living standards with fewer workers.

Here, digitalisation brings advantages as well as challenges.

In Europe, we are doing our best to minimise any 'digital divide' based on skills differences – and that has a lot to do with age as well.

I will talk more about digital skills a little later.

At the same time, digital is a top priority in the EU's development policy.

We see digital innovation and progress as a key tool to promote socio-economic advance in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

It is an excellent way to help tackle youth unemployment, to provide sustainable quality jobs and create inclusive growth.

Our Digital for Development initiative invests in local digital infrastructure, helps people develop the right skills, helps emerging tech startups to grow and scale up.

It encourages cross-sector digital services like e-government, e-health and e-agriculture.

 

Ladies and gentlemen

A high number of factory robots does not necessarily mean high unemployment.

Germany, Sweden and Denmark are in the world's top six countries with the highest robot densities in manufacturing, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

In the EU's April 2018 unemployment figures, they were all under the EU average.

I could make similar remarks about artificial intelligence and people's fears of losing control.

Yes, artifical intelligence probably will destabilise some aspects of economic and social life.

But I do not see it leading to the end of jobs as we know them.

Let me illustrate: Microsoft is deploying a technology that refines the ability of a radiologist to identify the boundaries of tumour cells and track their progress.

However, it should not result in machines replacing radiologists in the foreseeable future.

This is a machine technology that amplifies and complements the skills of the human expert.

New technologies make new forms of work possible.

With the rise of digital platforms and the sharing economy, self-employment, part-time and freelance work have become more common.

They bring a more flexible work-life balance and extra income.

But more flexible arrangements may not be as regular or stable as traditional employment – which can cause uncertainty over worker rights and social protection. I understand these concerns.

 

Ladies and gentlemen

In the past, technological change has often meant resistance to any change at all.

That approach can easily backfire. Dragging one's feet when it comes to technology advances can make eventual job losses worse - whereas new employment could be created by staying ahead of the game.

Since change is inevitable, what is the answer?

There is no single or simple solution, of course.

Our focus should be on facilitating the transition and providing support and security to the vulnerable: those in the front line of potential job losses.

Here, there is just one word to mention - skills.

The EU already provides funding and programmes to help people develop appropriate digital skills, along with re-skilling and up-skilling as needed.

The Digital Opportunity traineeship programme, the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, New Skills Agenda for Europe: just a few of many EU skills schemes.

Most recently, the Commission's proposal for the EU's next budget includes the Digital Europe Programme, with a specific focus on developing advanced digital skills in areas like HPC, AI, cybersecurity and digital public services.

People who risk losing their job because of digitalisation need and deserve our help.

As it turns more digital, the single market remains a major asset for our entrepreneurs, workers and people.

And technological development will continue - with or without us.

But I feel that we should avoid a situation where we think in terms of 'black and white', 'winners and losers' in the digital economy.

Instead, it is better to recognise how much our societies can gain from going digital. And Europe needs an adaptable workforce with appropriate digital skills.

That is why we should acknowledge the need to accompany this transformation, to do everything in our power to minimise any negative impacts.

Thank you.