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.

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Most of China’s tech producers die in their teens

factoryAn interesting bit of research cropped up on one of the few English language sites covering Chinese news in this region, Taiwan’s WantChinaTimes, claiming the average lifespan of a Chinese electronics manufacturer is a shade over 13 years.

Now this sounded pretty low to me, not having anything to compare it to, but it struck as an interesting stat which serves to illuminate a lot of the pressures Chinese manufacturers are facing today, and where the country wants to be in a few decades time.

The research itself came from a Chinese manufacturer called Global Market Group, which interviewed over 1,000 firms in the economic zones of the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta. It’s not a huge sample, given the sheer size of the industry in the PRC, but it’ll have to do.

The first thing to note is that 13.2 years is much longer than the average for survey respondents of 11.1 years – the report argues that this could be because electronics makers are forced to adapt quickly to changing tech to keep afloat.

More generally, though, 13.2 years doesn’t seem like a long time for a firm to be in business. But it does illustrate the rapid pace of change in the tech industry – where many fall by the way side in time because they simply can’t keep up with the latest trends.

It also shows, as Forrester analyst Dane Anderson told me, the intense pressure on Chinese manufacturers burdened with rising labour and energy costs and competition from other low cost suppliers in Asia.

US politicians and loathsome right wing media outlets often make out China to be the bad guy – taking American jobs by offering  brand owners by far the lowest cost of production. However, increasingly it’s becoming a more complex picture than this.

“The perception in the West is often that the manufacturing industry in China is a bullet-proof juggernaut, but this view is inaccurate,” said Anderson. “It is a dynamic and highly competitive sector squeezed by thin margins and demanding customers.”

Too true.

But as China looks to move up the stack, away from being a land of contract manufacturers mass producing at low prices in incredibly competitive market conditions, things might change, according to IDG’s senior research manager William Lee.

“The electronics industry is typically a high clockspeed industry, meaning the average product lifecycle time span is shorter than say automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment. So electronics manufacturing companies’ lifespan is typically shorter than other companies in other industry,” he told me.

“However when the manufacturing industries mature and many of these companies begin to evolve to brand owners, the average lifespan will increase.”

With China still some way behind Taiwan, South Korea and other countries, it will be a while before this happens, but it surely will, as this is the direction the Chinese government wants it to go in. It recently announced ambitious plans to create eight super-companies in the tech space each the size of Lenovo ($100bn in revenues per year), which would have globally recognised brands.

When that finally happens, and the sweat-shops move out to Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere, maybe the US will have to invent another bogeyman.