By Graeme Philp, CEO of GAMBICA [original post on LinkedIn]
It's hard to avoid the current debate about automation, robots and the increasingly digital world that we live in. Is this fast accelerating trend a scary prospect, or something to be welcomed and made to work for us?
We can probably discount the more lurid scare stories about robots taking over our world. They remain, after all, simply mechanical machines controlled by microprocessors which need to be programmed by humans to execute a predetermined set of rules. They are, and are likely to remain for decades at least, incapable of original "thought" - or any sort of thought for that matter.
While robots (and automation in general) are good at doing "tasks" they are not capable of totally replacing a human being - as long as we are using all of the qualities that a human being offers - adaptability, instinct, innovation, creativity, common sense..... I could go on.
I have been involved in international business for over 30 years and amid the banter that accompanies any meeting between executives from different countries, there has been a common, if grudging, acceptance that these qualities are real strengths of the people in companies based in the UK - along with not taking ourselves too seriously, apparently.
There will, of course, be jobs where human operators are simply performing repeated manual operations with no thought content and which can therefore be replaced in their entirety by robots or other forms of automation, but I would argue that these are actually quite rare. More often the automation is best be used to assist the operator with their task but the thinking part of the job remains for humans to do. We can achieve more output through automation but the need for human experience and expertise remains.
To paraphrase David Lane, Professor of Robotics at Herriott Watt University and a fellow member of the UK’s Industrial Digitalisation Review team, Productivity has a Numerator (output) and a Denominator (employees). Growth companies focus on increasing the numerator, declining companies focus on the denominator.
I'm convinced that the UK must automate in order to stay competitive in an increasingly productive world. I'm also convinced that, by harnessing the strengths of our people and culture, and by linking up our areas of world leadership in digital technology, from chips to apps, from computer gaming to space hardware, we can become a world leader both at the supply of this technology, and in its application to general industry.
We can create jobs through business growth and through the development and application of the technology itself. There are however some gaps that we are going to need to close, such as skills provision and the environment for investment, and these are going to take an unparalleled cooperation between industry and government. This does seem to be something that there is a real appetitive for at the moment. This is an opportunity that we need to grasp.
We're going to need some input from the UK industry community. Please help us with any thoughts you have on this subject or on the specific questions below.
Some key questions that we need to tackle:
- How can we build a future UK where productivity increases, making UK companies globally competitive whilst ensuring that more jobs are created than are destroyed?
- What help do companies need in making the transition to automation to ensure that productivity increases with minimum reductions in staff numbers?
- How can we retrain and redeploy those whose manual tasks are replaced by automation to make use of their process and product knowledge and other human qualities?
- How can we maximise the numbers of new jobs created by the new technology itself, either in its application within industry or in its basic building blocks, making the UK a world centre for the development of digital technology.
- What is the role of government in all of this?
- What can industry do for itself?
Have your say
I'm delighted to be leading the working group on automation and jobs as part of the UK’s Industrial Digitalisation Review (#IDR).
As a community of UK business leaders, I am keen that we work together over the next couple of months to build a collective vision of the future so that we can steer government and take the necessary actions to prepare.
If you are interested and would like to have your say in this dialogue, I will be looking throughout the months of May and June for thoughts and ideas from the community.
You can get engaged on this important debate by following us on social media #industrialfuture
The issue of automation and jobs is closely aligned to that of creating the right digital skills for the UK. This is the subject of a parallel working group within the Industrial Digitalisation Review team, lead by Phil Smith, the Chairman of CISCO in the UK. Here is a link to his inaugural blog: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/skills-uks-industrialfuture-have-your-say-phil-smith