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The Road to Davos: Can automation be a force for good

Enabling Digital Disruption

If I had to pick a theme for this decade, it would be ‘exponential change.’

I believe we’re living through a time of unprecedented change, powered by digital technology, that is only getting faster. And it will keep on getting faster, in ways that are unpredictable, unprecedented and unlimited.

For those of us heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos, it’s not only about how those changes will impact our organisations – but the wider business landscape and indeed the world. One of the biggest shifts that we’re seeing take shape is the growth of automation, driven in particular by the development of artificial intelligence and robotics.

This is something that has also become evident through our latest research, Timeline 2030, which looks at the impact of key trends on our world over the next 12 years. Automation, and other technologies, will have enormous consequences for both the business landscape and societies around the world.

So before heading out to Davos, I’m considering not only the technological story – but the human one.

From factory floors to law firms

The transformative potential of automation is immense – and only set to increase. Our Timeline 2030 research confirms that automation – through artificial intelligence and robotics – has the capacity to transform workplaces, economies and society as a whole. It’s often assumed that the biggest impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation will be in roles that are either low skill or have a largely manual component, such as manufacturing.

However, it’s becoming clear that the technology will have wide-ranging impacts on businesses, in a whole host of industries. Machine learning, for example, is being used today in some law firms to gather data from past legal documents, reducing a task traditionally completed by small teams of junior lawyers over many days to a few minutes.

There are also incredible applications in healthcare. Fujitsu has been working with San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Spain, to develop a machine learning solution that can diagnose depression from clinical records. The implications for doctors and patients of this sort of support could be huge.

There are many other functions likely to be impacted by automation in the near future – such as analytics, compliance and marketing functions. The result will see a significant change in the business world transformed in the coming years.

For better – or worse?

Unsurprisingly, as the potential scale of the impact of automation becomes clear, people are becoming more nervous. In the last year in particular, there has been significant debate about the threat posed to job security for people across industries, with the ‘rise of the robots’ making many headlines. While many of these stories can be considered hyperbolic, there is a stark reality to automation. The way that businesses and indeed governments approach automation will have serious consequences – and it is something that we must consider and plan for, today.

There may be a temptation for businesses to approach automation reactively, feeling pushed into acting quickly in fear of being outpaced by their competitors: essentially, thinking in the short term without considering questions like the impact of their actions on the workforce.

For instance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently warned that the growing cost of labour might encourage firms in the UK to automate quickly. However, if businesses move too quickly and replace workers on a large scale, we will see high levels of unemployment – and labour unrest. The knock on consequences will include everything from falling tax receipts to civil unrest and depression, and we cannot allow this to happen.

Automation for the people

Instead, businesses and governmental bodies should work together to ensure automation is implemented at a sustainable pace. We must consider the impact of automation on the workforce, both at present and in the future, and implement long term upskilling strategies to protect the employment prospects. We must also look at innovative ways to ease the impact of automation, including taxation reforms and rethinking welfare. Finally, we must encourage a forward-thinking approach that sees automation not as a way to cut jobs, but to free up workers to focus on more valuable and engaging work.

A resulting reallocation of tasks could be extremely positive, and ensure that humans are generating real value in creative and caring, rather than highly repetitive, roles.

For instance, going back to the case of the doctors at San Carlos, support with the diagnosis of patients would allow doctors to spend more time on the treatment of conditions and patient care – a part where human contact truly is invaluable.

An exciting time

It is an exciting time. We’re on the cusp of a new digital paradigm with incredible possibilities. There is no question that both private and public organisations should embrace technology today, to realise the benefits that it can bring and to not be left behind. But we have already seen some of the disruptive impacts of fast technological change in recent years, and businesses and governments must tread carefully and think long-term. By taking a responsible approach to automation and other technologies, we can reap the economic and social benefits of technology, for everyone – and that is one of the thoughts that I’m looking forward to discussing at Davos.

Read more about Timeline 2030 and the consequences of technological change >>

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  • […] year’s World Economic Forum, and I believe this is an absolutely critical issue. As I’ve said previously the defining feature of our time is exponential […]

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