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Thu 25 Jan 2018 02:35 PM

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Opinion: Ensuring that automation delivers on its huge potential requires foundations

With this new technology making its way in industries across the world, are we ready for the inevitable change?

Opinion: Ensuring that automation delivers on its huge potential requires foundations

Automation has the ability to transform society for the better.

Every day I see the powerful impact it can have, whether revolutionising the way business and everyday tasks are done, saving time and money, or delivering game-changing economics.

It will increase productivity, which is essential for future growth and prosperity. It will also see the end of employees spending time on mundane, repetitive tasks, and free up time to engage in more meaningful and enjoyable strategic or creative work.

The news around automation tends to be centred on its impact on employment, with most of the discussion focused on what is happening. But instead of the “what”, we need to talk about the “how”. Automation is here, so how can we best prepare for the future?

To ensure automation delivers on its huge potential, we need to lay the foundations for success. To that end, here are five rules – the beginning of an automation manifesto – that I believe will lay the groundwork for a future where automation can be embraced, not feared.

1. Fight the fear

Automation isn’t scary. Change can be. But like any change, if explained, managed and executed with care, it can be powerfully positive. Despite many studies showing that automation will create jobs, recent studies have suggested that employees still fear it. It’s important to remember that automation isn’t new. It has happened throughout history, and we wouldn’t have the modern world – from farming to transport and energy to entertainment – without it. It’s time for us to rebalance the debate around automation to reassure the wider public that, done in the right way, automation can benefit us all.

2. Think collaboratively

Governments, educators, businesses and consumers all have a role to play in shaping the future of automation. Action in isolation will only help with some of the answers. I believe it’s necessary for governments and businesses to show joint leadership, coming together to discuss and develop the policies, processes and practical guidance that will set the Middle East on the path to success.

3. Education, education, education

Technology is dramatically changing how we view and interact with the world, so the development of skills needs to keep up. By and large, education curriculums around the world need to develop alongside industry, and some are already doing so. In Vietnam, computer science lessons begin at age seven. By age ten, students learn coding. Skills are so advanced that a visiting Google engineer found kids in Grade 11 (16-17 years old) would have passed the notoriously hard Google interview process.

We need to be moving to a model where everyone entering the world of work has at least basic coding competencies. Doing so has the potential to transform industries that many see as “at risk” from automation. We are already seeing manufacturers shift their workforce from the assembly line to developer roles, leading to increased outputs and staff numbers, and allowing the “reshoring” of jobs that would otherwise be outsourced.

4. Develop new skills

Businesses also have an important role to play in re-educating and retraining all areas of the workforce. Large companies should consider spending a percentage of turnover on retraining programmes in areas where we know automation is likely to have a larger impact, such as logistics, retail and repetitive clerical work.

Investment in research and development will also be crucial: currently about five percent of companies undertake 54 percent of R&D spending. For automation to succeed, this needs to change – and fast.

5. Educate for empathy and champion creativity

Emotional intelligence (EI) plays a role in everything. People skills are already incredibly important, but will be in even higher demand in the future. Any job that benefits from the EI that only humans can provide will be in high demand. We need to look at ways to educate for empathy, so that the workforce of tomorrow will have the soft skills to thrive in the future.

The same is true of creativity, where humans will still be in charge of most creative industries. Even in an automated world, creativity will be essential. These five rules for automation will not provide all the answers, and they won’t cover everything. They are intended as a starting point; a call-to-arms to organisations to unite and begin this journey.

Automation is already happening, and it won’t stop. But it can deliver in a way that works for everyone, with careful planning, co-operation and considered thinking. A new year is always a good time to make resolutions, so let’s start this journey together.


Where will automation strike next?

The sectors where it’s already having an impact

Insurance

In Japan, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance laid off 30 of its medical insurance representatives, replacing them with an artificial intelligence (AI) system based on IBM’s supercomputer Watson to analyse and interpret unstructured data faster than a human.

Banking

New AI smart apps can now conduct cash transactions, open accounts and process applications at a fraction of the cost and time it takes for a human employee equivalent to do them.

Construction

Yes, even bricklayers are under threat. Robot SAMs (semi-automated masons) can lay up to 1,200 bricks per day – compared to the 400 average that a human can do.

Transportation

This is already here in the UAE, both on the Dubai Metro and Masdar City. Taxis are next in line, and Uber is already testing its own fleet of self-driving cars.

Manufacturing

China’s Foxconn recently replaced over 60,000 workers with automation robots. In the last two years, 505 factories across Dongguan – in the Guangdong province – have invested $500m in robots, aiming to replace thousands more workers.

Mark Ackerman, Regional Director, MESAT & EE, ServiceNow