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An exciting and treacherous future for automation

October 20, 2014

Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Predictions for 2015 and Beyond are in, and you’ll find quite a bit beyond the evergreen “Digital Business Driving ‘Big Change.'” Automation is looking to take a front and center position on the 2015 stage of IT topics for next year.

Automation is the great disruptor and it doesn’t just mean new machines to make work easier. Gartner and other experts watching the innovation sector are talking up the impending age of robotics, which won’t surprise those living in geekdom who appreciate science fiction or are familiar with Ray Kurzweil’s predictions about the Singularity.

The good news for organizations: “The need for speed and the large volume of activities due to "on-demand" expectation and user experience cannot be managed by increasing head count. Automation, robots and technology (sensors) will need to be embedded in the processes to achieve the scale needed to meet consumer expectation.”

But the bad or—if you’re an optimist—iffy news for humans is that “organizations will need half the human staffing to manage the end-to-end process.”

It’s not like society didn’t see this all coming. The challenge is that society isn’t adequately educating, training and preparing for the changes happening, perhaps not accepting how fast the daunting automation disruptions will arrive. Governments in particular, on the state, local and federal level, must be much more creative in their response to the automation of the innovation economy before significant numbers of humans are economically displaced.

Brookings Institution’s Joshua Bleiberg is trying to get ahead of that, suggesting the federal government may want to start considering an actual agency that—wait for it—regulates robots. But while we’re joking, that idea isn’t really farfetched as certain states are already attempting regulation. “A current weakness in the robotics regulatory regime is the lack of available expert knowledge,” observes Bleiberg. “Several lawmaking bodies have already made mistakes regarding new robotics laws. For example, the Nevada legislature defined an “autonomous vehicle” as any replacement of artificial intelligence for a human operator. Outside commenters argued this definition is too broad because it categorizes old technologies like anti-lock brake systems as autonomous. The FAA’s new drone policy also did not include a good definition of the new automated technology, which made the regulations confusing and difficult to navigate. A new federal agency could gather together subject matter experts to provide best practices to other government agencies and develop optimal federal policies.”

Think tanks like Brookings have been watching these developments closely. Gartner is the latest to rip the bandage off the proverbial wound by simply giving some timeframes: “By 2017, a significant and disruptive digital business will be launched that was conceived by a computer algorithm. By 2018, the total cost of ownership for business operations will be reduced by 30% through smart machines and industrialized services.” The message here is to just get ready.

That increased automation, however, is not really that bad if two trends converge. First, governments must encourage educational institutions, from K-12 to college, to aggressively and correctly educate students beyond what Gartner analysts worry are becoming outdated STEM skills. Students must be digital scholars adequately prepped for the digital workplace. Regulation will be essential, but the education piece is critical since it will serve as a preemptive safety net against destructive economic displacement and doomsday scenarios. Second, organizations should support the development and enrichment of that talent by forming partnerships with educational institutions for both academic and recruitment purposes.

Should public and private sectors achieve a larger automation mindset of the masses that is not only prepared for the robotics age but can also master it, workers’ opportunities are limitless. Vendors, as Gartner suggests in their predictions, should be grooming specialized talent that can strategically envision the role of automated systems, artificial intelligence and robotics in the marketplace. In addition, as Forrester’s Michele Goetz notes, automation also encourages further “cognitive engagement,” thereby “augment[ing] peoples' capabilities with digital assistance, scale a knowledge capacity through expert advisors, and automate repeatable activities such as a self-driving car.” The future is upon us, but it’s not that uncertain. It’s all a matter of the marketplace’s ability to adapt.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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