The Singularity and the CIO: Discuss

terminatorSci-fi writers have been warning us about the coming of the singularity for a decade now. And while we’re some years away from having to contemplate such a future, AI, machine learning, big data and other technologies are developing at a pace which is already beginning to impact the global workforce.

I chatted to some experts on the subject for an upcoming feature to find out whether CIOs should be terrified or enthused by the prospect of robot workers.

The truth is that they’re already here, in many heavy industries like tech manufacturing. In May this year a local government official in the Chinese district of Kunshan announced contract manufacturing giant Foxconn was reducing “employee strength” from 110,000 to 50,000 workers, because of investments in robots. But what about when they spread into other industries? As far back as 2014, Gartner was predicting that as many as one in three jobs will be “converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025” as software advances mean technology systems begin to replace cognitive tasks as well as factory jobs.

Meanwhile, a report from the Bank of England last year estimated up to 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation in the future. And a Deloitte/Oxford University study in January claimed 35% of today’s jobs have a “high chance” of being automated in the next 10-20 years.

For IHS Markit analyst, Wilmer Zhou, the coming robot hordes represent both a challenge and an opportunity to employers. Aside from manufacturing, he picked out several industries where jobs are potentially most at risk, including agriculture, logistics, and specialist domestic care. Most surprising for me was healthcare.

“It’s one of the industries with relatively high robot deployment such as surgical robots,” he told me via email. “IHS forecasts that robots in the medical industry will be one of the fastest growth sectors, with the decreasing of the average sale price of surgical robots and expansion of medical operation tasks.”

For CIOs looking to maximise the potential offered by these new automated workers, it will be important to create trust in the bots, argued Forrester principal analyst, Craig Le Clair.

“Cognitive systems can end up learning undesirable behavior from a weak training script or a bad customer experience. So build ‘airbags’ into the process,” he told me.

“Assess the level of trust required for your customer to release their financial details. Get compliance and legal colleagues on board as early as possible. Cognitive applications affect compliance in positive and negative ways. Be prepared to leverage the machines ability to explain recommendations in an understandable manner.”

Also important is to foster human and machine collaboration wherever possible, to reduce friction between the two.

“Rethink talent acquisition and your workplace vision,” Le Clair explained. “Some 78% of automation technologists foresee a mismatch of skill sets between today’s workers and the human/machine future, with the largest gaps in data, analytics, and cognitive skills.”

The bottom line is that robots and AI are here to stay. Whether they’ll have a net positive or negative impact on the workplace is up for discussion, but it may well hinge on how many so-called ‘higher value’ roles there are for humans to move into once they’ve been displaced by silicon.


With Virtual Reality, the Future’s Closer than you Think

virtual reality headsetWhat does the future of virtual reality hold? I’ve got to say it’s not a question that has particularly bothered me from a corporate IT perspective – a feeling I’m sure shared by many CIOs out there. But the truth is that VR – and its slightly more sensible cousin, augmented reality – is already beginning to transform the way organisations work and engage with their customers.

Putting together a recent feature for IT Pro in Hong Kong, I spoke to several experts about the kind of use cases that VR and AR might best fit, and some of the key challenges facing manufacturers.

It’s pretty clear from most of the analysts I spoke to that those smartphone-based VR headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are going to get end user traction much quicker than the high-end Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and others.

“Everyone has a smartphone so it makes the entry barrier for VR very low and affordable,” IDC European associate director, Chrystelle Labesque, told me. “Does it offer the best experience? Maybe not. But it does give people the chance to have their first VR experience.”

From a manufacturer’s point of view, each major player in the space – and virtually all of the world’s biggest tech companies have a stake in VR/AR – faces a difference set of challenges according to their commercial priorities, argued IHS Technology head of games research, Piers Harding-Rolls.

Samsung, for example is using VR to drive sales of its premium smartphones, he told me.

“We have already seen Samsung diversifying further with the Gear 360 camera to build of its VR ecosystem offer and to continue to differentiate as more and more smartphone vendors bring their own VR headsets to market,” Harding-Rolls added.

“Samsung is now using the Gear VR as a promotional and bundling tool to sell more phones, but the value of this offer may become diluted over time. So for Samsung the challenges centre on staying differentiated and building out the ecosystem successfully in the face of additional competition.”

As for those high-end players, it’s all about trying to drive down their prices to appeal to a broader market.

“Oculus has courted developers for over two years, but still does not have the scale of distribution and user base of Valve’s Steam or Sony’s PlayStation Network, so must build its own content and compete from a less established position,” he claimed. “As you can see the challenges differ from platform to platform.”

But this is talking about VR/AR from a consumer-focused perspective. The truth is that it’s already being used both inside companies and to create differentiated experiences for customers.

Labesque referenced a British Museum project last year that allowed visitors to experience the Bronze Age through Samsung Gear VR headsets, for example.

The Marriott hotel chain has also been an early adopter – using the power of Oculus Rift VR to transport users to far flung destinations, and in so doing build its brand and even drive potential sales.

When it comes to internal use cases, AR has the edge, according to the experts. Digital overlays can help with training, working to meet strict compliance requirements, and collaboration, among other things, Labesque explained.

On this front, Microsoft’s Hololens already has some impressive big name case studies to brag about.

So there you have it. If you’re a CIO and have the money and motivation – VR/AR is probably something you should be considering right now as part of a multi-year innovation project. If not, it won’t be long till your CEO is knocking at your door to find out why.


Peel back the hype and the cloud is not all shiny

Sometimes it’s reassuring to know that, wherever in the world you travel, IT leaders are experiencing exactly the same challenges.

A day spent listening to CIOs and IT leaders at MIG’s CIO Executive Summit 2012 in Hong Kong on Wednesday confirmed my suspicions.

The major take-aways I, well, took away, from the event were that CIOs are still not taking charge of innovation, strategy and business leadership as they should; that BYOD is a huge challenge made all the more urgent by the demands of Generation Y; and that cloud projects are still by-and-large of the private variety where sensitive data is concerned.

On the latter point it was interesting to hear CIOs on stage and senior IT leaders in the audience back-and-forth about the as-yet-unproven reality of cloud computing.

This is the stuff the vendors probably don’t want you to hear, and went a little something like this:

  • Never try to ‘push the envelope with a cloud project without consulting the regulators first. One big name did in Singapore and was forced to dump his Salesforce.com investment as a result.
  • It’s very difficult to determine, but proper due diligence would include trying to decide where your prospective cloud provider is likely to be in 8-15 years’ time. An assessment of the cost of moving to another provider or moving everything back in house should always take place
  • The more the cloud integrates with your back end systems the harder it is to switch providers. Realistically speaking you need to treat these projects like an old-school SAP implementation.
  • Virtual private clouds could be the answer to many corporate IT managers’ prayers, allowing them to fulfil regulatory requirements around isolation of systems whilst taking advantage of the agility of the public cloud.

It’s the same the world over. Beneath the hype, most IT leaders are actually feeling their way with private cloud deployments and possibly using some public cloud projects for non-sensitive data.

It will take quite some time, probably years, before this changes.