Aside from highlighting how much we all love baked beans, one of the telling signals from the recent supply chain crisis we are faced with is the dispersion of skills. Do we have enough of the right ones and how can we fill the gaps in both the short and long term?
Of course, to ensure we all get our Christmas turkey, the answer is to parachute in thousands of overseas workers on temporary visas and/or fast track UK workers into employment. But that is the definition of ‘short-term’. Beyond that, we need to look to other, more sustainable solutions, which is where automation comes in.
Everything that can be automated, should be automated
I'm not professing that bots are the solution to driving lorries (though driverless vehicles will be upon us within the next generation) but industrial investment into automation is gathering pace. And the numbers prove it.
The FT reports that, globally, warehouses are expected to invest $36bn in automation this year, up 20 per cent from 2020. Combined investment into automation this year and last has jumped $1.6bn against pre-pandemic forecasts, according to research group, Interact Analysis. According to this report from KPMG, global AI investment will top £150 billion by 2025. The study suggests that, although AI technologies currently account for $12.4 billion (around £9.40 billion) of global investment, this number will skyrocket in the next three years, with 40 percent of executives expected to increase their AI investments by 20 percent or more, and 32 percent of them increasing RPA investment by 20 percent or more.
There’s much more on this in this year’s IDG Digital Business Research report, but the argument carries some weight when Harmit Singh, CFO, Levi Strauss & Co. says that ‘everything that can be automated, should be automated’.
Shifting tectonic plates of commerce
The natural progression of this tale leads us organically into the ‘robots stealing jobs’ argument. Though, as the current skills shortage highlights, there are many jobs to fill that humans can’t - and won’t - do. The pertinent point here is the shifting tectonic plates of commerce.
The monotony of some jobs makes recruiting and retaining workers harder, a growing problem across a range of sectors. Banks, for example, are automating boring “grunt work” to stop a talent drain. In US and European warehouses, the boom in online shopping during the pandemic has accelerated the switch to automated systems and robots, which can cope more quickly and efficiently with increasingly complex orders as demand for next-day delivery rises and bottlenecks in the supply chain cause disruptions.
It is not surprising that the market leader in deploying and developing warehouse automation is Amazon. It is experimenting with a group of new robots, all with Sesame Street-themed code names, to carry out different tasks. Kermit autonomously takes empty boxes from one part of the warehouse to another. But whether it is a frog, pig or cookie monster, the fact that this role is automated means that a boring and unattractive (but necessary) job is taken off so a person can go and do something more fulfilling.
A better job market
Automation is not a silver bullet either. Success in finding an equilibrium will take time, trial and error, investment and patience. Workers will have to learn how to work with AI as well as develop their abilities in areas where humans will retain the edge over machines, including empathy, building relationships and collaboration. There are industries leading the way here, particularly in insurance financial services - sectors that have been disrupted by digital upstarts born in an automated age. Industries like these that are much further down the line with the adoption of automation have cleared a path for others like legal, healthcare, transport and others to follow, especially around issues like governance, process discovery and scalability. In doing so it has highlighted several fundamental points that need to be addressed for bringing human and bot together successfully in the workplace.
Aside from developing the relevant skills of current and future workers, employers need to improve pay and conditions for those skilled workers that remain. Systemically, we must improve education in working with and understanding technology while every organisation must invest in systems and processes for orchestrating the processes that are automated to deliver the best results.
If we can do all that, the job market will evolve and we’ll all be better off as a result.
And finally, as if to demonstrate a recent and best-in-class example of humans and bots working together, I have to include this. If, for nothing else than to cite an example away from industry. Ludwig van Beethoven's unfinished symphony has been given the AI treatment.
When the composer died in 1827, he left his last symphony, which would have been his 10th, incomplete. Only a few handwritten sketches of this work have survived… until now.