The mini-supermarket at the bottom of my road is closed for a couple of weeks for refurbishments (this may seem like an incredibly mundane topic with which to start a blog, but bear with me). The signs announcing this closure were only put up a couple of days beforehand, and somewhat surprised I asked the cashier - with whom, like many in my neighborhood, I have a friendly relationship – what was behind the chain. The shop is part of a very large national chain, but has a "local" atmosphere unlike, in my experience, most such establishments. She replied that the shop is being redesigned to include several self-serve tills - and was, of course, unwilling or unable to answer when I inquired if that means job losses amongst the current staff.
An elderly man being served next to me then said something which got me thinking: "It's computers, isn't it? Everything will be run by computers soon, and there'll be nobody left to talk to." In this particular instance, at least in the short term, that gentleman was of course being premature - that shop will still have a complement of human staff, and won't be entirely based around self-serve points of sale (POS) - but there as everywhere else in the country, technology is driving vast change in the retail sector, with ramifications that go far beyond that industry and which have the potential to affect the whole fabric of society.
For the past 60+ years, the standard joke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been that it is “the future.” In 1950, Alan Turing questioned whether machines could think like humans…and less than ten years later, Marvin Minsky founded the AI lab at MIT. For decades, people tinkered, pondered and philosophized about robotics. Factories installed automation to remove workers from redundant tasks…but advancements in office settings didn’t progress at the same level. People hypothesized about flying cars, but few could imagine cognitive computing. I think it’s finally safe to say that the future is now. AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are no longer conceptual ideas…they are business strategies that will continue to impact our lives in radical ways.
A recent Forrester study predicts that by 2021, 6% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots. While it may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, consider that it represents growth from 250 million in 2016 to 2.9 billion in 2021. Sure…we’ve all dealt with AI and technological advancements already: call centers that put us through a series of (irritating) steps before you can finally talk to a human; travel aggregators that find the best deal across all airlines…ads that stalk you online after one quick search for a new printer…but until recently, it was hard to see how it would really affect the world of sourcing and procurement.
The word “revolution” gets thrown about a fair bit at present (not least by me…) when discussing the new wave of automation technologies which are transforming the way organizations do business. But are we talking about “revolution” or “evolution” – sudden and dramatic, or gradual change? Well, it’s a bit of both: the technology itself is evolving. We can trace, for example, the evolution of IBM Watson back to the Deep Blue chess computer which beat Gary Kasparov back in the mid ‘90s...which can in turn be seen to have evolved from its predecessor Deep Thought...which itself was a successor to ChipTest (developed in the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon University)...and so on, back to Turing and beyond. While there have been revolutionary moments along this path – the transistor, the integrated circuit etc. – it’s clear that this is an evolutionary sequence, at a pace which may seem very far from “gradual” to those who’ve been alive to observe it but which, nevertheless, consists of successive advances built upon what’s gone before.
The build out of the “internet of things” will drive the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours, according to IBM. That means that every time you go to bed for the night, an entirely new amount of information has flooded the world. It wasn’t that long ago that robots were only part of huge factories. Now they have them available for purchase at local retailers for less than $50. Robots are more than mechanical machines…in today’s world, they are incredibly advanced tools that have the ability to automate everything, including driving.
As sourcing professionals, it is necessary that we all understand the new world we are living in, and how it impacts not only our organization, but our daily job. Do you have a knowledgeable understanding of:
How you are going to source these new products?
How you will negotiate contracts for technologies that didn’t exist last month?
How you will incorporate these products into your work?
How contracts will be crafted to protect IP?
Do you have the knowledge, skills and competencies to fully grasp the future that is here and expanding exponentially?
Education is the answer…and there are a few simple things you can do to support your own education:
Make sure you are reading a book a month. That’s an investment of only 15-20 minutes per day. If you don’t know what to read, (I have this problem) ask someone you trust, explore the internet (trusted sites) and determine what the most successful people are reading. Make sure these books are not just about your industry or current role, but about business, innovation, creativity and other areas of focus. By reading a variety of books, you will gather different insights and uncover different views on the changing world.
Teach. When you teach others, you learn. You have knowledge others want and they have insight you need. Learning is a mutual relationship.
Mark Pollack, Vice President, SIG University and Chief Strategy Officer, SIG
At dinner recently, a guest held us all entranced as he described his current work: a post-doc at a prestigious London university, he has been working for nearly two decades in artificial intelligence (AI), specializing in trying to teach computers how to teach other computers. While much of his work is simply too esoteric to explain here (that's my code for "it went right over my head"), what was very obvious to me was the extent to which things have advanced since we first met - as he was just setting out upon his journey in this field - and how rapidly theoretical advances are becoming practical innovations which then, in turn, move out into the mainstream. Problems he and his peers were wrangling with only a few years ago now seem like ancient history, he said, and while "the future is always infinitely far away, tomorrow seems closer than ever."
If any of us at the table had had any doubts before that we're on the verge of tremendous social change as a result of automation and smart technology - and I don't believe anyone did have such doubts (as one would have to have had one's head thoroughly buried in the sand not to be aware of the whirlwind approaching us), they would have been thoroughly dispelled by the end of our companion's passionate and impressive address. But, of course, how to react to the automation revolution is immeasurably more difficult than simply to assert that it's coming...
They’re in the supermarket, the library and active war zones. They’re on the farm, in schools and even in our own homes. Robots are everywhere. This may sound like the pretense to some futuristic, action-packed Hollywood film but it’s our reality in 2016 and at times it's a somewhat frightening one.
Robots are taking over jobs in nearly every industry imaginable and continue to replace human workers every day. This is one of the biggest fears for those of us who are Millennials. In a world where a bachelor's degree may not get you an entry level job right out of college...or where companies are looking for recent graduates that miraculously have a minimum of 3-5 years experience, the loss of any type of job is terrifying. Really. I understand that jobs that are repetitive and task-oriented in nature, like those in the automotive and textile industries, are most at risk. But there are other "college-level" jobs that are also ripe for the picking, including bank tellers and low-level accountants. Does this mean it's time for us to panic? On the contrary. Other jobs will thrive and will allow our generation a chance to be engaged in our work in a way that hasn't been seen before. If we aren't burdened down by having to do jobs that are more repetitive and even potentially menial, it allows us more time to be innovative and creative.
So welcome to the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. As the year comes to an end, it strikes me that the world is changing...and changing faster and faster than anyone knew was coming. We now recognize that the future of work looks very different than it did a few years ago. We aren’t living in the "Jetson’s age" just yet, but we are definitely living in a world that I only dreamed about as a child. Fast forward to today...I have a robot in my kitchen that keeps my grocery list, gives me National Public Radio News daily, is my food timer, sets appointments up in my calendar, reminds me when I need to do things, as well as tells me daily jokes, plays music, turns on and off my lights and makes sure I know when it is time to reorder my dog food.
My Amazon Echo, or Alexa, is my BFF at my house. She knows more about my likes and dislikes than my fiancé. She knows my grocery list, she knows what I like for music, she keeps track of my to-do’s and she is in charge of making sure my Christmas baking doesn’t burn. But more importantly, she helps the kids with homework, reminds them of their chores (yes, yawn, yawn) and so much more.
So how are you using robots in your business? How is RPA going to change the future of work and how we perform in the future? Yet alone, when we add cognitive to the solution what does the workforce look like for the future? Are we going to only need people who automate the work they do today or do we need to create a generation of future employees who "get" how the world might function? Will we one day have people come to a job interview and ask for a robot to be included in the offer to help streamline the repetitive tasks in a person's work? I reckon that day is near. I for one would love to have that kind of power on my desk on a daily basis. Wouldn't you?
Much has been written recently about robotics. If you Google it, the most common word you will see in articles about robotics is “hype.” In fairness, it’s generally in the form of a question…it it hype? Is it more than just hype? Is the promise of artificial intelligence finally here? For the past two years Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have become more prominent conversations at SIG Summits…and the word on the street is that these are no longer just futuristic concepts. They are real. Much of what is out there centers on the idea that automation is just a passing IT fad. But I’m not buying it. I’ve looked behind the curtain and I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. (Nothing like mixing a few metaphors.)
Concerns abound that automation will take away jobs, and in an era where we are still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession the threat of job loss is daunting…haunting even. But is that is the most important aspect of robotics? Yes, it could take jobs away but robotics are most easily applied to positions that are repetitive and process-oriented, so the premise is that the people in those jobs can then be redeployed to more strategic roles. Gartner uses the term “automation arbitrage” to describe RPA and in effect, that is just what it is. But there are so many more possibilities with it.
In all my years attending SIG and similar sourcing conferences (often from the outside looking in), I have never observed this degree of nervousness around a new innovation as that surrounding Robotics Process Automation (RPA). Speakers struggle with how much development background they should share before launching into the topic. Conference attendees eagerly lap up nuggets of information that can add to their meager understanding of the topic. And the few who "get it" seem to be oblivious to the general discomfort of mainstream sourcing professionals whenever robotics is mentioned.
Recently, during a trip to visit suppliers in India, I similarly noticed a strange awkwardness surrounding the marketing of both RPA and analytics. When developer/programmers are asked to explain product offerings, they trip over themselves a bit cautious that buyers may not be able to grasp the computer science, statistics or mathematics of the product offering, and consequently resort to demonstrating actual end-user applications without ever really saying, "We have a miracle here, and we want to share it with you! And there is so much more we can do each week!"