The world economy is on the verge of a transition point. Millions of people who have performed simple and menial jobs will be replaced by machines. Time-honored brands will fade away. Entire industries that have stood for generations will be displaced or destroyed.
While this phenomenon is not new, this time the scale and impact is likely to be unprecedented.
According to Sean Culey, author of Transition Point: From Steam to the Singularity, technological innovation that’s been slowly coming down the pike for several years has been accelerated by the effects of the global pandemic and people being forced to do their jobs outside of traditional offices.
Organizations in every industry are reassessing how people work, where they work, and the operating models needed to enable all of it. In the process, they are embracing new-ish technologies that may have been on their radar for a while but suddenly seem more relevant. More useful. More necessary to their futures. Like artificial intelligence, machine learning, cognitive automation, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.
As these technologies are increasingly deployed by leading retailers, financial services companies, manufacturers, government agencies, and other organizations, it will invariably put pressure on others to reluctantly follow suit. In the process, Culey says fierce battles will naturally arise between companies and leaders protecting investments in the status quo and innovators or entrepreneurs leading the march to something new.
Initially, this friction could get ugly. Even dangerous. But if leaders recognize resulting scuffles for what they are, and people get through them relatively unscathed, then a new “golden age” – a digital la Belle epoque - should await on the other side.
“In the development of new things, we unfortunately see the disruption of old things, old ways, old technologies, and old industries,” says Culey, in an interview with Jon Harris, business development lead for the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport International. However, as new technologies emerge and become more industrialized, we also begin to see new forms of energy, transportation, and communication emerge to address many challenges of the previous industrial age, he says.
We also see new ways of problem solving, enabled by automated technologies, begin to take root. These allow us to begin addressing some of our biggest societal challenges, he says, including environmental sustainability. And in beginning to finally solve those issues, new industries, jobs, skills, and opportunities arise. This is the “golden age” Culey talks about.
But its arrival is far from certain, Culey warns. To succeed in the new normal, many leaders will have to get out of their own way and relinquish their adherence to traditional business structures that prioritized cost control, maximizing profits, and pleasing shareholders. Instead, they will need to focus on delivering timely and relevant value to businesses and consumers whose requirements are in constant flux.
Many leading businesses already understand this, Culey says. Amazon, for example, started using palm reading technology at various Seattle stores last year as part of its experiments with contactless identity and payment services. While Amazon has been moving in touchless direction for a while, these types of efforts have taken on new urgency because the coronavirus pandemic led many people to shun contact with physical items, such as cash, credit cards that must be swiped, and point-of-sale (PoS) devices.
Similarly, Culey notes the continual march of Internet of Things (IoT), 5G wireless, and other connected devices is creating such a data overload that ordinary human beings simply cannot process it all.
“Too much data. Too many variables. It’s coming too fast,” he says. “Basically, humans are becoming increasingly limited by their capabilities to process all of this data. To make sense of it.”
As a result, technologies such as AI and cognitive automation will be mandatory before long, Culey says.
“The technology (capable of) capturing all of this data has grown exponentially and is going to explode when we move to the Internet of Things and 5G becomes ubiquitous in the next 18 months,” he says. “We’re going to have to rely heavily on this technology.”
Culey says that, as automated technology becomes commonplace, it will invariably create a need for different types of skills. More employees will be required to partner with machines to get the work done. Since the technology skills gap has been wide for several years and grew more pronounced during the pandemic, he says organizations will need to invest in continual training to assure access to appropriately skilled talent. But he notes such training needs to be more “blended” and personalized for employees. They should build on individual strengths, recognize the wide disparity of technological expertise that workforces tend to have, and help workers prepare for jobs that benefits both them and their employers.
Government should play a role in supporting training and reskilling programs, he argues. After all, if large numbers of people are thrown into unemployment lines because they no longer find themselves technologically relevant, it could lead to massive economic and societal problems.
On the flipside, if leaders in the public and private sectors embrace the new normal, forget outdated business models, and prepare people to work seamlessly with AI and other cognitive technologies, then economies and societies can flourish. The “golden age” that Culey talks about can become a reality.
“The opportunity is now,” he says, to embrace the new normal, sidestep destruction and ride these technological platforms into the next age of industrial development.
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