At first glance, it appeared that this month’s emerging technologies conference EmTech Asia 2017 in Singapore might be too futuristic to actually be useful for business today.
As it turned out, the insights from leading technologists offered at the event – held by MIT Technology Review magazine and trade fair organiser Koelnmesse – were immediately relevant and can help businesses structure themselves for success.
Technology for people
“It’s a time to reframe thinking around technology” announced Paul Daugherty, chief technology and innovation officer at the global professional services group Accenture. Technology development is proceeding at an accelerated pace and it’s also combinatorial, where every technology builds on the technology before.
The economics around technology are changing as well, with computing and storage costs steadily moving towards zero. What that means is that companies need to consider people rather than just technology and reframe their approach so they think about the human first.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the new user interface, said Daugherty, with a combination of virtual reality, artificial reality, gesture-based interaction, chatbots and virtual agents all transforming the way we use technology, so “the screen will disappear”. As businesses move to using AI and platform-based solutions such as Uber, Apple and Amazon, companies will need to operate differently and involving partners is becoming essential.
Organisations also need to think about new workforce models for the digital age, so people can work digitally. Business will need flexible processes to source talent, as well as exchanges such as the global freelancing platform Upwork, formerly Elance-oDesk, to connect people to organisations. These connected and contract staff “become part of your organisation chart.”
The changes also mean that companies need to design for humans by reframing the experience people have with technology and focus on the experience first. “This isn’t just about screens, it’s how we interact with technology,” said Daugherty.
As one example, agents such as the Amazon Echo are more transformative than the smartphone, and they are transforming the way people interact and go about their activities. No less than 4,000 services from other businesses are riding on Amazon’s voice assistant and AI platform, Alexa-although it has so far publicly launched only in the US and the UK.
The net result is that AI could drive a 40% increase in productivity and an expansion in gross domestic product (GDP). At the same time, however, it means that there are going to be short-term disruptions for people who aren’t prepared for other jobs. Companies need to harness these changes by equipping the workforce with the right tools and providing good infrastructure that will allow people to be productive. Whereas most organisations review issues internally, they now need to think about external, how to network and the best way to get things done.
To protect against cyber-attacks, companies and their staff need to think entirely differently, suggests Walter O’Brien, chief executive officer (CEO) of Scorpion Computer Services, a US company that promotes itself as a “think tank for hire”.
Usage of passwords, for instance, needs to change. “Where you were born, your pets can be figured out from Facebook,” he said. “Cambridge University can predict, with 95% accuracy, the bands you like.” To protect themselves better, O’Brien recommends that staff use passwords with capital letters and including special symbols is important. Companies also need to prepare for the future, though, as quantum computing will make passwords obsolete.
Moreover, backing up data and business continuity are also essential. While viruses were once relatively harmless, ransomware will now start encrypting files and Cryptolocker 2.0 ransom Trojan resets the modified date so staff don’t know what has been changed. As many as 92% of companies don’t back up data properly and don’t test it, said O’Brien, and 43% of businesses never re-open after a data event shuts them down.
To protect against this new threat, companies need to snapshot their backups, freeze them and not keep them connected. They should isolate source control system so they have no human access, use an identical virtualised environment, ensure migration integrity and provide full segregation of duties for quality assurance, production, development and the source code. “It can save you; this is not expensive,” he concluded.
Security not an afterthought
By putting devices on the net, “we’re making ourselves vulnerable to attacks,” said Douglas Gardner, chief technology officer (CTO) for Analog Devices (ADI), the US multinational semiconductor specialist in data conversion and signal processing technology. “Attacks can mean real money, real problems. The cost to attack is low and keeps going lower.”
The challenge is that today’s systems are content-centric, with “utilities for security all based on the old view of perimeters, boundaries, and fences, trying to protect everything from getting in.” If one employee plugs a mobile phone into a universal serial bus (USB) port to charge it, for example, they breach security, so “we need to move to endpoint security.” Companies have to be careful not to repeat the sins of the past, when security was an afterthought said Gardner.
Since 95% of compromises are breaching identity, such as passwords or certificates, identity is the most key element. “Use assigned identity – what you need is devices to produce their own identity,” he recommended. “Build a layered system so you can add identity and security. Move it to the point where when someone breaks into the system, they break into one point only.”
Sean O’Sullivan, managing director (MD) of accelerator venture capital (VC) firm SOSV, considered the challenge of making the accelerator model work well, which he stressed needs to have an experienced entrepreneur running it.
The other vital ingredient is a follow-on investment stream and the biggest mistake accelerators make is not having sustainability. Companies expect capital, from customers or other investors, and institutional investors need to be right there. “Have a community you develop that you can fund for several years,” he recommended.
The future supply chain: robotics and automation
The real change in the supply chain in recent years is the shift to digital connectedness, according to Samay Kohl, CEO of robotics systems developer GreyOrange. No longer is there just one manufacturer in a remote country – manufacturers are becoming more flexible, everything is real-time, and consumers have more choice.
A key part of this digitisation is the use of robots. While installing robots in a factory is straightforward, companies reduce their capacity if they place them in the supply chain and wait for them to calculate. Robots “really came in for rigid automation 30 years ago, doing things that are highly repeatable,” said Kohl. “The problem is that all of this doesn’t work for the supply chain. Packing a pen and packing a microwave are different. Traditional automation doesn’t work.”
The future lies in intelligent automation. Today, companies “have highly complex tasks. Individual automation, currently at 97-98%, will soon reach 99.99% efficiency. The connected supply chain will have software that is self-learning.”
Although it is possible to have warehouses without any human staff within 10 years “it’s going to end up being our choice” as to whether to have them entirely reliant on robots. For now, automation is removing the tasks that are unpleasant and making jobs better, thereby helping to reduce attrition that can reach 300% a year in a warehouse in India. Today it’s about making their jobs better and within five to 10 years “people will decide” to what extent jobs disappear.
While digitisation could produce disruption and cyber-attacks could shut down businesses, companies that leverage insights such as these can thrive in the future. AI, robots and other tech innovation can boost productivity tremendously, but only when companies actually put people first.
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