I used to have many phone numbers memorized. It was second nature to pick up the phone and dial someone’s number. Now the term “dial” even seems a little obsolete when it comes to phones. How many millennials have even seen a rotary phone with an actual dial? But it has made me start to wonder…is the ubiquitous use of smart devices making us actually think less?
I suppose that in some ways it was inevitable. Calculators made it possible for people to quickly arrive at answers to problems that previously took a lot of time and many steps to complete. And in much the same way, every technology that connects to another technology to give us immediate access to information we weren’t easily able to get otherwise, eliminates our need to use our brain to find it. Now I'm not saying this is a bad thing…but I do think it makes us a little lazier.
Case in point…one of my daughters has Type 1 diabetes. When she was diagnosed, we agonized over every meal; figuring out what she was planning to eat, counting the carbs in the meal, factoring out the fiber and then calculating the amount of insulin she’d need based on her current carb-to-insulin ratio to keep her blood sugar levels in check. In the beginning, I incessantly worried that we would give her too much insulin and send her in to diabetic shock or worse. Over time, we learned how to do it and got pretty good at calculating math in our heads…especially helpful for my then-11-year-old daughter. But as soon as she went on an insulin pump, we stopped having to actually do the math, and now if she takes a “pump break” I find myself having to really think…and it makes me nervous.
Disruption. Until recently that word meant something negative. It was a nuisance…a disturbance…an interruption…it meant trouble. In fact, if you look at synonyms for disruption, every one of them paints it negatively. But lately when you hear the word “disruption,” it generally means change—and even positive change. Disruptive technologies are in essence solutions that are changing the future of work. They are challenging the status quo.
I was recently reading an article about Amazon potentially purchasing Slack. (Ironically one of my colleagues sent it over in a “Slack” which we use for internal communications at SIG.) As my colleagues and I reminisced about our first use of Amazon, it made me realize what a pioneer they were in disruptive technologies. The term may not have been widely known, but they certainly paved the way for it to be put into ubiquitous use.
I can’t really remember when or how Amazon disrupted my life…but it did. Somewhere along the way I went from being skeptical about purchasing things online to almost exclusively shopping with Amazon—and Prime no less because I want the immediacy of it. Don’t get me wrong—there are certain items I will never purchase on the Internet, but if I am going to shop online, I ALWAYS check Amazon first.
What does going from three to eight billion connected human beings mean to the global economy? Companies like Facebook (Internet.org), SpaceX, Google (Project Loon) Qualcomm and Virgin (one Web) are in the process of rolling out the connectivity to every human on earth.
They are not rolling it out the way we started either, i.e., with a dial up modem on AOL. Rather, they are providing connectivity to exceed one megabit per second. Imagine when there are more than 5 billion people connected to the internet accessing information on Google, Amazon, artificial intelligence with Watson, cloud, 3D printing and more. Just imagine.
How are they connecting the rest of the world? Through technology, of course…but in ways you may not expect. Project Loon is using a fleet of balloons traveling just inside the edge of space to provide connectivity to remote geographies around the world. “Internet is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from our telecommunications partner on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down to users on the ground.” The connection speeds are astounding. “Project Loon has taken the most essential components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light enough and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up in the stratosphere. All the equipment is highly energy-efficient and is powered entirely by renewable energy - with solar panels powering daytime. Each balloon has a coverage area of 5,000 square kilometers.”
To truly innovate, you need a certain kind of leadership in your organization. I always look for and hire people who have an insatiable curiosity and who become bored easily. I truly believe if you have the desire to constantly look toward the unknown you are a person who does not like executing the existing.
In John Sculley’s book Moonshot he speaks about how the traditional education system harms our ability to innovate. By making students remember and recite, we reward children by giving As for the right answer versus asking the right question. We reward people at work for executing according to plans, not for taking risks and for having a futurist mindset. Instead of thinking about how to do something better, we need to start with “do we even need to do it at all?”
Let’s discuss accretive manufacturing. What? Haven’t heard that term yet? That’s because accretive manufacturing is just a fancier name for 3D printing. You may never hear it referred to as accretive manufacturing, but mark my words…the supply chain industry is about to be disrupted to an unrecognizable extent by it. In 2016, Honda released a single-seat “micro-commuter” vehicle with the body and majority of the panels having been 3D printed. In the meantime, Boeing expects to shave $2 to $3 million off each 787 Dreamliner's manufacturing costs by 2018, thanks in part to 3D-printed titanium. So if Boeing can now 3D print parts to an airplane and auto manufacturers are now 3D printing dashboards—and even entire vehicles—how long do you think it will be until we require almost no inventory because we can 3D print on demand any item we desire?
At home if I break a spatula, I can now 3D print a replacement. Granted, I am only printing with plastic and lack the tools to print an exact replica, but when it only takes an hour to print with specifications that are available for free online at a cost of only 15 cents (plus a little electricity)…isn’t it worth considering? Even Amazon Prime same day delivery (not available where I live) can’t beat that timeline and price.
As I write this, the UK is continuing to gear up for its forthcoming (June 8th) General Election, called by Prime Minister Theresa May only two years after the last one, purportedly to enable the British electorate to give the government a clear mandate for its Brexit strategy. Purportedly this is because many observers believe May's real motive is her hopes of being able to take advantage of the woeful situation in which the opposition Labour Party currently finds itself.
Regardless of the drivers behind the election decision, however, it's true that voters and the country in general continue to wrestle with significant uncertainty regarding Brexit. With Article 50 now having been triggered, there may now be no doubt that Brexit is indeed happening. The UK is leaving the EU in March 2019, but the terms of that departure are still very much up in the air, and the real consequences - economic, political, social, diplomatic - for the nation remain, frankly, anyone's guess.
I recently attended an event in London featuring representatives of local government from across the UK, intended to foster discussion around what Brexit will mean at a local level - and it was immediately clear that at that level as at every other, confusion continues to reign. Again, we have at least the certainty of departure - and the knowledge that a 'Great Repeal Bill' will be drawn up which will ensure that the state doesn't immediately collapse into lawless chaos on Brexit Day by transposing existing EU legislation onto UK law so that the government can then begin to modify that legislation to suit the country's own purposes and desires (rather than having to draw up, ratify and implement thousands of new laws all at once).
As I sit here at my desk listening to the glorious whirl of robotic process automation taking place at my feet (my Roomba is vacuuming diligently), I think back to SIG's last Global Summit in Amelia Island and how RPA was at the forefront of our discussions.
Now, of course not everyone is as fond of certain types of automation. My dogs for instance, who are getting old, a little deaf, a little blind and a little senile, get spooked occasionally by this little disruptive digitalization in their lives. And my 4 year-old daughter thinks it's cool, (calls it her puppy) but if it gets too loud or in her way, its process quickly becomes terminated prematurely.
As I write this my Roomba signals with its happy little tune that it has completed cleaning the room and silence almost ensues, except for the faint hum of my newly installed ceiling fan (it’s a truly glorious sleek modern contraption) and it occurs to me that this too, a more common example of process automation, also brings me great joy, convenience and comfort. At one point both these items were the newest technology and people doubted their need and also questioned how many jobs would be lost at their hands. Not unfortunately, these days you do not find too many personal fanners (picture Cleopatra being fed grapes and giant palm fronds), but in its stead fan designers, engineers, installers, repair servicemen and salesmen. And whereas only a small minority of the population could afford a professional fanner back in those days, ceiling fans are common place and found in abundance due to technology and manufacturing improvements, making them less expensive and more easily accessible.
It was recently announced that full tests of driverless cars will take place on UK roads (including motorways) within the next two years. The UK is lagging in this area behind some other countries, especially the USA, where the likes of Google have been taking automated cars out on public highways for several years. However, it's another landmark for technology which looks set to utterly transform human transportation over the next couple of decades.
At the same time, as I walk along my local High Street the windows of employment agencies are plastered with signs calling for drivers - of vans, minibuses, HGVs; indeed, one agency has only these jobs on display.
Obviously, any transition to automated vehicles (especially the large ones on which the logistics industry relies) will take time (how much time has yet to be seen, and many issues remain to be decided before the shift can fully take place); however, it seems both interesting and unsettling that anyone approaching an employment office wondering which roles might be most in demand would come away with his or her thoughts pointed towards an industry on the verge of radical transformation involving the eventual removal of exactly those roles currently being yelled for.
A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog entitled ‘Automation and the Human Touch’, looking at some of the challenges the automation revolution is set to throw our way regarding future employment opportunities and the education and training of our next generation(s). That blog provoked some very interesting thoughts from readers:
Over the Easter weekend I had what ended up being a rather disturbing conversation with an old friend, which I thought sufficiently relevant to this space to share with you. This friend has very recently started a new job, working in an outsourced contact center providing advice to, and processing applications by, users of local (public sector) health and social services (I need to be relatively vague here, for obvious reasons...).
One of the main tasks she has to perform is vetting people who call looking to get access to one particular healthcare-related service. Due to the nature of this service, applicants are invariably over pensionable age (65, more or less, here in the UK) and suffering from illnesses or disabilities that restrict mobility - this is an important point: we're dealing with some pretty vulnerable people in (often serious) need. My friend has to take them through a survey and, at the end of the call, inform them whether or not they've qualified to receive this service.
The problem - one of the problems - is that certain responses to some of the survey questions can disqualify applicants outright. My friend explained some of these to me and, frankly, it's an outrageous situation. For example, applicants who say they're using certain medical apparatuses which haven't been prescribed by their General Practitioners (GP) won't qualify, even though these specific items are the kind of thing one might buy oneself, be given by relatives/friends/charities or procure in some other way simply because they're useful, rather than even considering going to the GP to be prescribed them.
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.