This week the great and the good will gather in Davos to discuss ‘Managing the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – what it means and how to respond. But I am concerned that the debate will be superficial, futuristic and miss the point. We are in the middle of a crisis – now. And we need to ensure that Davos highlights the issues for business and governments – now.
The World Economic Forum which hosts this event, says the Fourth Industrial Revolution is “The digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres……. The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
While part of me says “thank goodness, finally senior people are waking up to what is happening in our world”, the other part of me unfortunately doesn’t believe much will change. And it needs to. Very quickly.
I have been blogging about this intelligent automation revolution for some time (and I see it as the third revolution, not the fourth – but this is detail) and my concern is that business people and all leaders neither understand how technology changes are already affecting business and the world, nor how to manage this uncertain future.
Too much of the debate has suggested that this is an issue for our futures. It isn’t.
There are discussions over when robots will get to be smarter than people – somewhere between 10 and 20 years seems to be the current thinking. Yet robots can already substitute the work that many of us do.
Robots have worked in manufacturing for a long time but increasingly they do the jobs of accountants, lawyers and architects. They are driving cars on our roads and play major roles in medicine and education. They will substitute for human workers, they will not substitute for human beings and we should not pretend that they might.
What we must do is take robotics seriously. It is both an opportunity and a threat for humanity and companies, politicians and the public need to understand what those threats and opportunities are.
So what do I hope to see from Davos?
Most of the work on robotics is being done in Japan and the US but there is an opportunity for British innovators to take up the challenge. Which British politician, technologist or scientist is going to pick up the mantle and ensure Britain is a leader in future robotics?
Companies need to understand far better than they do the impact that robotics will have on their businesses. Last year I carried out research to check out my concerns that British business leaders are not managing technology. It was worse than I thought. 58% of UK bosses admit they do not have the skills to manage technology in their organisations. Last week I wrote in the Financial Times that business schools are no longer fit for purpose – they are not helping business leaders to make the leap needed.
So who in Davos is going to pick up the mantle for British businesses – will a business school respond and start coaching our British boardrooms? Will the CBI or the Secretary of State for Business, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP get interested and take action – to ensure the long term viability of the UK’s businesses?
Politicians must think about the need for investment and also about the impact of robotics on employment.
And the public need to be involved in the debate around the impact of robotics on society.
Sadly, of all the possible outcomes at Davos, I would put my money on the societal impact of robotics taking up the most air time and the biggest share of headlines. Yes, there is a lot that needs addressing with the impact on society, not least the future of work and jobs. But in the short term I am concerned that within three to five years we will see British businesses not only losing jobs but profitability and global brand names.
The issues posed are serious for our future and we need to start taking them seriously.