Vibrant Economy

Preparing Cambridgeshire for the future: embracing AI

Darren Bear Darren Bear

Labour’s Tom Watson recently called on society to ‘embrace an android.’1 The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party said the rise of automation in the workplace should be welcomed, not feared.

It put me in mind of a recent dinner we held in Cambridgeshire. With business leaders, innovators and influencers gathered around a table at Cambridge Regional College, we set out to discover how we can encourage the region’s businesses to embrace automation.  

Living in the age of robots

There were an estimated 1.8 million operating industrial robots at the end of 20162 and it is expected that this number will increase to 2.6 million units 20193.  From Alexa who wakes us up, to Shazam which tells us our favourite song, and even the giant screens that help us order our favourite fast-food snack, AI already plays a solid role and brings huge benefits in our day-to-day to lives, without many of us even knowing.

Yet, media headlines – unfairly or not – raise concerns which many people around the table acknowledged. Startling predictions like ‘15 million jobs lost to automation’4 fail to convey the full picture, says James Duez, co-founder and chairman of automated decision-making engine, Rainbird Technologies.

“A lot of people look at AI and see the fear. I’ve worked in AI for ten years and it is simply the next step in a long history of automation… [AI] is just another word for innovation and the job market has long been transformed by the emergence of new technologies. We have to see what technology will give us, not just focus on what it may or may not take away.”

Be open to change

It reminded me of a speech Chris Jones, CEO of City & Guilds made at an event we held recently. He outlined how technology can't replicate every single job and the nature of technology means it can be left to repeat and replicate while people can get on with more interesting, creative tasks.

Attendees at the Cambridge event echoed this measured optimism – agreeing that businesses should welcome technology and find ways for it to add to people’s professional roles – rather than pretend the change will never occur.

British businesses stand to gain if they if they embrace the changes, said Duez. “The organisations that don’t embrace technology will not survive. They will burn up in the white-hot fire of competition.”

Do more of what you love

Event attendees told us that embracing technology demands transparent leadership and a focus on soft skills. Empathy, teamwork and expert communication are not robot-compatible … yet! These soft skills, as well as filling in where AI fails, will provide people with transferable skills that we know are increasingly relevant to non-linear career paths.

Meanwhile, leaders should be transparent with their people – acknowledging that automation will impact certain roles and job descriptions and resourcing demands will change accordingly. But there is the opportunity to strike a positive tone, noted several of our guests in Cambridge. More AI at work will free people from repetitive, boring jobs. Instead they can focus on what they enjoy doing. 

Cambridgeshire's strong foundations

AI brings huge opportunity for Cambridgeshire. Cambridge and the wider region is well-placed to lead the country in welcoming innovation in, rather than leaving it out in the cold. The Silicon Fen boasts more than 1,500 technology and science businesses1 and is home to some of the UK’s most innovative businesses5, including SwiftKey, Raspberry Pi and Darktrace. It’s time to publicise this success.

“Cambridge is going from strength to strength. But some of those strengths aren’t being shouted about enough – we are a massive success story. There’s lots going on here, particularly in terms of science and innovation, that the Government wants to support and therefore is investing in the area to accelerate the growth as it helps the UK’s overall economic performance,” said Rachel Stopard, CEO, Greater Cambridge Partnership. ​

The future of work and the issues surrounding the debate are uncertain by their very nature. However, transparent leadership that prepares its people and celebrates its success, combined with an attitude that views automation as friend not foe, will help UK businesses make the most of transformation.  

References 

  1. 'Don't Fear Robots, Embrace An Android': Tom Watson Says New Machines Can Liberate Workers, Huffington Post, 11 December 2017
  2. Almost 2 million robots to be installed by 2020, according to report, Control Engineering, 28 October 2017
  3. World Robotics Report 2016, International Federation of Robotics, 29 September 2016 
  4. Bank of England’s Andy Haldane warns 15m UK jobs at risk from robots, Financial Times, 12 November 2015
  5. They call it Silicon Fen. So what is the special draw of Cambridge?, The Guardian, 1 December 2013

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