Q&A: How automation will reshape workforces, with GE Digital’s Deborah Sherry

Q&A: How automation will reshape workforces, with GE Digital’s Deborah Sherry

What will automation and AI really mean for the UK’s workforce? Will it result in a net gain or loss of jobs? What will the consequences of rapid change in an AI-driven workplace be for the workers of today, and how will we develop the workers we need in the future?

Internet of Business spoke to Deborah Sherry, SVP at GE Digital Europe, about what the near future may bring, and the difficult questions we need to answer about skills and workplace change, and how these will affect employees.

Deborah Sherry
Deborah Sherry, SVP, GE Digital Europe

Internet of Business: We often hear how AI and the digital economy will drive growth, while numerous reports describe the financial benefits. But, bearing in mind that jobs will be lost as well as gained, is there a case to be made for a more tempered outlook?

Deborah Sherry: “I think we should stay optimistic for the future. The Industrial Internet of Things, combined with AI, will add billions of euros to Europe’s economy. Our own estimates suggest that adoption of IIoT technologies could add between £200 billion and £320 billion to the UK’s GDP by 2030.

“This will drive productivity and, in turn, economic growth and job creation – but they will be different from today’s jobs. AI and software will bring, and indeed are already are bringing, significant changes to the job market. We need to adapt business processes and jobs in order to make the most of the digital opportunity.

“For many of us, partial automation of our work will create capacity to do more interesting and creative things to help our businesses grow. Government, employers, and employees alike are going to have to adapt as these new tools become more mainstream. This is backed up by research.

Last year we commissioned a report on the Future of Work, which found that 54 percent of Europe’s jobs are exposed to at least partial automation or redundancy in the next two decades. However, the findings also revealed that technology will create plenty of new jobs that will fill in a lot of these newly-created gaps.

A recent WEF report shows that AI and related technologies will bring about a net gain in employment, though jobs will be both created and lost in the process. How should organisations and governments prepare for the shift in roles that AI might create?

“To maximise the potential of the digital economy in the UK, we will need to nurture a new skills pool, not only by training more people in STEM, engineering and data sciences, but also by up-skilling our existing workforce.

“Domain expertise and industry specific know-how are always going to be valuable – the most successful businesses are the ones who also help their people do what they do better with the new digital tools that are available.

“I think, in the short term, it’s essential to ensure we are re-skilling and using existing talent to meet the evolving needs of modern businesses. To address this, the most critical task for industry and governments is to ensure that all workers – not only young people, but also the people who are further along in their career path – are able to develop, hone, and upgrade the right skills to thrive in a world where work is increasingly exposed to automation, software, and AI.

“In the longer term, closing the skills gap will require the realignment of both the private sector and educational institutions, so that the workforce of tomorrow can meet the realities of the quickly evolving jobs market. I believe that greater co-operation between all players can help to facilitate this, as well as more targeted investment.

“This means not only bolstering the UK education system, but also aligning it more closely with industry, to improve the co-ordination between the demand and the supply of talent.”

The displacement of jobs evidenced by the WEF report creates real human challenges, both in terms of education and training for the new roles and in dealing with job losses. How can employers, society, and individuals manage these changes on a human level?

“I think that this is one of the thorniest issues related to the impact of digitisation of the workplace. The changes we will experience are needed, but the changes they bring will be profound.

“As with preceding industrial revolutions, the next one will drive social change, which can be disruptive. To be able to cope with the human impact of these changes, governments need to work with educational institutions and the private sector to adapt social policies and support the people who risk being left behind.

“From free retraining and upskilling through to tailored work scheme programmes, there is much that can be done to mitigate the negative impact of digitisation and prevent the marginalisation of impacted groups in society. As the world changes, we all have a role to play in making sure everyone in our society is able to adapt.

We shouldn’t forget that if society is to realise the huge productivity gains of the Industrial Internet and digitisation, this will significantly boost our economies, providing the needed funds for better educational and training policies that cater to the needs of everyone.

Tech companies always talk about ‘human plus machine’ rather than ‘versus’, but a lot of evidence suggests that customers see AI and robotics primarily as a means to slash costs. Where tech companies are genuinely working to augment human skills rather than cut labour costs, how can they prove this to consumers?

“Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, businesses have been trying to find ways to make things better and faster. Higer quality at a lower price means better value for customers.

“In the 1860s, the first ‘management consultant’ FW Taylor started to map the processes that his employees used to complete their day-to-day work tasks in order to find the ‘one best way’ of doing things. He increased productivity, profits, and wages dramatically by making sure that his people used repeatable processes.

“So by using machines, robots and AI, organisations are taking another step forward on a journey that began long ago – moving from craft to industry means using new tools to make things better.

“We can prove this to consumers by sharing examples of where we have directly improved their lives. Prior to implementing our manufacturing execution systems (MES) at their printed circuit board factory, a single component would travel through one of our aviation manufacturing customers factory with 35 pieces of paper attached to it. At each step of a process, the paper would need to be stamped.

“Partial digitisation of the process meant that each operator needed to open eight different applications to process one step in the production process. The operator needed to manually check that each part had a corresponding serial number in one of the applications. As this business worked in a highly regulated industry, failure to stamp a piece of paper or a mistake with the serial number would mean that the final product would need to be returned back to the quality assurance team, disassembled, and rebuilt.

“Today, the product travels through the production line with one piece of paper containing a barcode. The operator opens one application and scans the barcode. This increases both the speed at which products can move through the production line and the quality. As this is a highly regulated industry, that quality translates into better safety for end consumers when they fly.”

Looking ahead five years, what do you think will be the three most visible changes the average consumer will see from the development of AI?

“To begin with, everything will be more customised to the consumer, allowing businesses to use AI to anticipate customer needs. For instance, AI technology will soon be able to understand natural language, including body language, and use this insight to personalise the customer experience.

Taking this a step further, AI and software will help accelerate service delivery and speed up the product development process. For instance, retailers will be using AI to not only predict customer behaviour but also to build a customer profile that allows them to quickly design products and services which are tailored to the needs of the specific customer.

“In the next couple of years we’ll also see growth in AI-based consumer applications, such as Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri. Their new products will be more sophisticated and able to perform much more complex tasks due to the ability to better understand our behaviour and even our emotions.”

Internet of Business says

For more on building, connecting and monetizing IoT, Edge Computing and AI, including workforce management, IoTBuild is taking place on 13-14 November 2018, Olympia Conference Centre, London

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