Robotics revolution

Is your tech team ready for the revolution?

6 Feb 2017

As the fourth industrial revolution gets underway, Hays’ Steve Weston asks if company IT teams and talent pipelines are prepared to maximise on it.

It seems that artificial intelligence and robotics are moving from the laboratory at lightning speed, and are touching every single part of our lives. The way we read the news and hail a taxi has changed, and soon the way we work – and the skills needed to do our jobs – will evolve.

As the World Economic Forum put it, we’re on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, and the technology that underpins it will have a huge and – some would say – unpredictable impact on business. As Andrew McAfee explains in this Economist podcast, there is no clear distinction of the level of automation and, indeed, transformation of jobs we can expect.

However, one thing is for sure: with digitalisation and automation such a high priority, the impact on the role of the chief information officer (CIO), and on their IT departments the world over, will be profound.

A changing workplace

It’s been fascinating to see how a step change in technological developments has enabled what was recently considered science fiction to become a reality. Across all industries, from warehouses to fruit picking, healthcare to fast-food preparation; those areas of employment that haven’t traditionally been automated are now experiencing a rise in robot involvement. Countless other developments are taking place that, though less eye-catching, I believe are no less remarkable.

China’s robot revolution is filling the country’s factories with manufacturing robots. In Rwanda, the world’s first regular commercial drone delivery service is up and running, with drones dropping medical supplies at designated delivery points.

UK prime minister Theresa May recently promised an extra £2bn a year to be spent on R&D by 2020, and many innovative companies, such as BAE Systems, are already opening their own dedicated training centres. The automotive industry is busy implementing a whole host of new innovations, from internet-connected vehicles and driverless cars to autonomous lorries designed to make door-to-door driverless deliveries.

We will always need people to design, program and repair robots

While it is hard to predict the impact of the fourth industrial revolution, what we know for sure is that each and every one of these remarkable technological developments will have required huge support from the CIO and IT teams of the company behind them. After all, it’s hard to deny that even the most sophisticated robot is a simple and expensive pile of parts without a legion of highly skilled humans to design, program and repair it.

As Melonee Wise, CEO of robot manufacturer Fetch Robotics, said in a 2016 article: “For every robot we put in the world, you have to have someone maintaining it or servicing it or taking care of it. There will be new jobs [and] there will be new things that people have to do. It’s whether these employees are trained appropriately to do these new jobs.”

This view is supported by a Deloitte report, which confirmed that technology has created more jobs in the last 144 years than it has destroyed. And this, I believe will have a huge impact on all of the IT infrastructure and departments of the future.

Increased demand for robot creators

As such, the emergence of this new generation of workplace robots has already led to an increase in demand for IT professionals – or ‘robot creators’ – with particularly niche areas of expertise:

  • Robot programmers understand how a robot perceives the world. They create tailored code to enable the machine to execute its tasks efficiently and effectively. As well as a relevant degree and extensive training, robot programmers need people skills to liaise with clients so they can customise each machine to perform its desired function.
  • Robotics engineers combine skills from a range of engineering disciplines in order to design, build and maintain complex robotic machines. They are typically qualified to degree level in electrical, manufacturing, industrial, electronic or mechanical engineering.
  • Senior engineers are educated to at least degree level, and those at the cutting edge are likely to have specialist postgraduate qualifications in cybernetics and systems science research.
  • Machine learning engineers focus on enabling computer technology to acquire intelligence in addition to that contained within its programming. Requiring skills beyond traditional computer science and programming, machine learning engineers need a solid understanding of probability and statistics, as well as data modelling and evaluation.
  • A multitude of technicians provide support and specialist expertise typically gained through hands-on apprenticeship schemes and classroom instruction.

Evolving jobs, skills and training initiatives

While these ‘robot creators’ are just one area in which we are seeing an evolution in roles, skills and subsequent training initiatives, there will no doubt be many more. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report predicts that automation could lead to the creation of 2.1m new jobs, particularly in areas such as computing and engineering.

As Tata Consultancy’s chief technology officer, K Ananth Krishnan, stated: “Robotics and AI will transform many of the tasks that we do, especially in the IT world and the world of the CIO. Many things we did in the ’60s are now done by software tools and are automated, and are not relevant in today’s world – and this is now happening in the way we manage data centres, write software and test it.”

So, is your IT talent pipeline really fit for purpose?

The strength and skill of your future IT team will have a huge bearing on whether or not a successful robot revolution will take place in your business. After all, as Ian Cox writes in his book, Disrupt IT: A new model for IT in the digital age: “Just as technology changed the organisation, today the IT operation has to change to enable organisations to benefit from the technology change currently occurring.”

I therefore believe that it’s time for IT departments to stop being so reactive, and more proactive, while really driving the agenda for digital disruption forward within their own organisations.

It’s important to realise that, while automation is here to stay, it won’t happen overnight. We still have time to prepare. Even so, we mustn’t rest on our laurels. These new technologies will demand different skills from our IT teams and create new jobs.

Therefore, I urge you to seriously start planning for this future world in your talent plans, and really think about whether your IT function has the skills it may need in the future.

Remember: a successful transition into this new world of work will be impossible if we neglect to upskill our current IT teams. After all, they will be the ones required to fill these new roles, many of which have not even been created yet.

By Steve Weston

Steve Weston is the chief information officer and global head of corporate accounts at Hays.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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