Business in the age of robotics

A panel session at the CBI Annual Conference 2016 exploring the impact of robotics on business gave insights into current practice and a tantalising glimpse of the future. Relocate’s Fiona Murchie reports.

Katherine Courtney at the CBI Annual Conference 2016

CBI via Creative Commons. Katherine Courtney speaking at #CBI2016

At the CBI’s 2016 Annual Conference, Tom Cheshire, technology correspondent for Sky News, led a panel discussion exploring the impact of robotics on business.Accepting the premise that, to create a truly great business, humans and machines will need to work together, it makes sense for all organisations to start considering the application of technology in their business and what skills and knowledge will be wanted for the future. The panel members brought different perspectives to the discussion. They were Professor Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory; Tom Athron, group development director of the John Lewis Partnership; Chris Allam, managing director of future programmes and services at BAE Systems; and Ian Funnell, UK managing director of ABB.John Lewis now has three automated warehouses in Milton Keynes. Tom Athron explained that automation and robots provided the opportunity to enter new markets and look for new revenues. They allowed the company to offer new things to customers, such as the ‘click and collect’ service, whereby, if a customer ordered an item by eight o’clock in the evening, they could pick it up the next day in Waitrose. 

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On the issue of data for a brand like John Lewis, which has ‘love and trust’ at its heart, Tom Athron felt that protecting data had to be at the top of the agenda. The challenge was to find ways that were secure and safe, and to use information collected in a way that was intelligent and reflected customers’ needs.Chris Melhuish introduced the topic by speaking briefly about the technologies most of us are not even hearing about. A good way to catch up is to visit the Bristol Robotics Laboratory’s website and explore the business engagement section in particular.

Filling skills gaps 

You will be fascinated, and also heartened, by the great work that is going on with schools and young people. As productivity is such a challenge for the UK, the accessibility of STEM teaching to fill the skills gap is essential and something we at Relocate are driving.Professor Melhuish pointed out that businesses had the opportunity to consider a set of technologies they could adapt to exploit opportunities. He emphasised that finding engineering talent was critical, and that we needed to address the issue, not only for the industries of today but also for the companies our grandchildren would work in.That prompted the question, what are we doing about the companies of tomorrow? Universities, staff and students can create their own companies, but there is the issue of support and stability when they need to scale up. Professor Melhuish’s view was that enough was not being done to support potential. Such companies can walk away and join Google instead of staying and scaling up in the UK.In response, BAE Systems’ Chris Allam explained that the company was investing a huge amount in education, including £60 million in a skills academy. The extent of BAE Systems’ commitment to the next generation of scientists and engineers is demonstrated on its website."In the UK, we have fewer start-ups in automation and robotics than almost any other country, and yet better education. We work with SMEs on education,” Chris Allam said. “We need more people doing that, because the results are amazing."

Data and security

Chris Melhuish, responding to a question about artificial intelligence, explained that there were indeed many "different flavours" of artificial intelligence. IBM’s Watson (an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language) digests huge volumes of data, but it is a statistical computation, which is a different approach.The concept of ‘deep learning’ is at a different level. Yes, you need data, Professor Melhuish confirmed, and "any company not using data is doomed to failure. The problem with that is it exposes you to risks with security. It is not just all about automation".Once you start helping robots work with humans, those products will be vulnerable to security risk. Chris Allam confirmed that the threat was real, and that cybersecurity was at the top of the corporate agenda, and therefore businesses had to act responsibly. "Data is the future of all our businesses," he said.Sky News’s Tom Cheshire asked whether regulation could help the high-tech industries. "Beyond safety, regulation isn’t really appropriate," Professor Melhuish said, while Deloitte UK senior partner and chief executive David Sproul added, "The customer will eventually impact what is successful and what fails. We need to go through that to get to the next phase."It’s easy to get concerned about the social impact, but that’s progress. We’re far better to embrace it and make sure we have the best ethics possible than try to make sure it doesn’t happen."ABB’s Ian Funnell pointed out that robotics were intended not to replace humans but to work effectively alongside them. "The YuMi robot is designed to work in collaboration with a human being, with the robot doing a set of probably more repetitive tasks. It’s useful in production processes, where it’s quicker than a human.""It’s easy to paint a dystopian future,” said John Lewis’s Tom Athron. “But humans and machinery will always be better than humans or machinery. "The safest way to manage data is just not to have any. That can’t be the answer. The challenge is to find a balance between not using the data at all and unlocking its value. Use it to put ideas in customers’ minds that reflect their needs," he suggested.

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