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Take a look around your workplace. There’s a high chance you now rely on software more than you do your colleagues to keep teams on track and do basic admin tasks. Maybe you use a personal assistant (hey, Alexa) to organise your life. Or have successfully shifted all your repetitive tasks to a chat bot.
There’s no doubt artificial intelligence is making our lives easier – but it’s also stirring some concerns about the future of the workplace. If you listen to the hype, robots are milliseconds away from taking our jobs and reducing humankind to robot slaves.
Siemens UK CEO Juergen Maier, who has long been at the forefront of robotics, recently lead a review of artificial intelligence within the UK; the risks, opportunities and possible impact on the economy.
At our inaugural Future Talks event – held in Manchester on 22 September – we invited Juergen and a select group of colleagues to share these views with us. The consensus? Robots will do more good than harm.
“In the UK, we have a really massive problem with balance of payments,” says Juergen. In other words, we import a lot more than we export. Secondly, he says, “we have a big problem with the current account balance – how much money the country takes in versus how much money the country spends. Both of those are massively negative.”
Juergen believes the only way to fix that is to create an economy that makes and exports more things. “As a nation, we’ve neglected to do that. That doesn’t mean we don’t make good things – we do, just not enough of it.
Despite having the highest employment rate since 1975, the UK’s wages continue to lag behind inflation. Technological advances, the rise of the gig economy and low productivity are all to blame, says Juergen. But he believes that robots could impact the labor force in a positive way.
He points to past industrial revolutions as examples. “From steam power to mechanisation, they’ve all been driven by technology. Every revolution has resulted in increased output and increased employment, so I have absolutely no reason to believe that this next revolution is going to be any different.”
If we get this next digitisation revolution right, he says, it won’t just drive productivity, it means we’ll drive jobs up the value chain. “The fundamental reasons are we’re not exporting enough, and we’re not driving productivity and output. Unless you’re driving productivity, you can’t raise wages.”
The potential for large scale data analysis is huge: imagine being able to read and take insight from all the world’s health records simultaneously. Or being able to predict what a customer is going to do before they do it.
“Artificial intelligence is absolutely going to be able to do that work better than any of us can,” says Juergen. “At the moment, I spend a lot of time reading reports and looking at data, and I’d much rather be talking to people and engaging with government, doing thought leadership work.
“There will obviously still need to be someone who turns that data into a narrative but all of that initial work should absolutely be done by AI. The sooner we start thinking about how these technologies can help us rather than replace us, the better off we’ll be.”
Robots are absolutely fundamental to fixing the UK’s economic problem
Juergen strongly believes that the age of robots will free humans from repetitive work and create more high-tech industries. He points to one of his clients, BAE, as an example. “They had 16 people on the factory line working on a wing of a joint strike factor, just drilling hole after hole. They started having problems with repetitive strain injury.”
With the help of a robot, BAE now employ 14 people and have increased their output. “So, yes, it’s two less people – but they’ve managed to retrain 14 people who were doing the drilling to be the operators,” he says. “That’s the trick to successful digitisation – making sure that the people previously doing those repetitive jobs can be retrained. The sooner we think about how robots can help us rather than replace us, the better.”
Future Talks is a series of panel discussions being held across the UK during September, October and November 2017. It brings together Siemens employees across all facets of the business to share, converse and debate the topics that everyone is talking about. Check out #FutureTalks on Twitter for all the highlights.
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