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The opportunities and challenges of automation

Our latest Vital Topics debate explored how our increasingly automated world is transforming the nature of work.

Panellist Ian Funnell, Chief Executive of ABB UK - a global leader in digital industries with expertise in electrification, industrial automation and robotics - said his business was looking at digitisation in every single sphere of business.

However he said that there remained a lot of urban myths around automation. “Too expensive? You would be surprised how cost effective it actually is. Too complicated? I think kids on iPads these days have probably got the skills to programme robots. Displacing some of your workforce? The reality couldn’t be further from the truth in most cases.”

First steps

Funnell said there were many examples of companies which have made a first step into automation and never looked back. “Typically, as soon as they make the first step, they want to make the second step, third step, fourth step. They become much more productive and efficient, and the successful ones employ more people.”

However he conceded that UK plc needed to embrace automation more widely. “We are one of the most under automated countries in Western Europe and we need to change that and challenge companies about the art of the possible. There is so much technology out there which is developing very quickly and which can change the way we work.”

Disruptive

Our debate was chaired by TV broadcaster and CEO of Teen Tech Maggie Philbin. She said she had always been fascinated by the way that technology has the power to make life “better, simpler, safer or more fun”.

“As long as it does at least one of those things I’m absolutely behind it. We are in a period of extraordinary change and there are so many considerations which perhaps we have not needed to make about technology before.”

She added that previously if you wanted to produce disruptive, ground-breaking technology it was a very expensive thing to do and you needed to be a large company with a massive R&D department to do that. “This is no longer the case because if you have a really strong idea, the right skills, or if you know people with the right skills to implement that idea, you can change things very quickly. A lot of disruption isn’t coming from within an industry.”

However Philbin admitted automation posed many challenges. “There is a big one around policymaking because it is hard for the policymakers to keep up. But arguably there is an even bigger challenge around skills. How do we equip people with the skills they need to be able to cope with this fast-changing world?”

Challenges

Cristina Inversi, Lecturer in Employment Law at Alliance MBS, highlighted how the School’s Work and Equalities Institute (WEI) was playing a major role in the ongoing government review into automation and the future of work. The review was launched last year amid concerns that jobs could be lost across a swathe of industries as operations are increasingly automated, with professional as well as manual roles increasingly affected.

She added: “What are the challenges of automation and Artifical Intelligence for the regulation of employment? How does automation impact worker life? And how is the state adjusting to the challenges brought by new technologies? The WEI is at the forefront of these debates.”

Fellow panellist Jonathan Patterson, Managing Director of DWF Ventures, said it was important to widen the debate to talk about the impact of technology on services. “Technology has the potential to transform professional services. But with all this wealth of technology we can sometimes forget that it’s also about people. For us as a firm the debate is how far do we go in digitising our services? Where is the cut-off point where a client or customer in a high-risk scenario still wants to talk to a human being?”