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Robots in the right hands can be customer ally

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At the recent World Economic Forum there was much discussion about robots taking people’s jobs. However, this may not be the case as it will afford companies to up-skill their employees and place them in positions that cannot be handled by machines.

At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there was much talk about the power of automation and robotics, with business leaders and politicians excitedly discussing the incredible potential reimagining whole industries based on the use of artificial intelligence.

Some of the headlines which follow automation and artificial intelligence through the media do not always share the same excitement. There are understandable concerns that for every job done by a robot there will be a loss of jobs for real people; but it need not be the case. These technologies do not have to replace people. Of course those decisions will be up to individual employers but there would be a false economy in replacing people rather than redeploying them to other parts of the business, or helping them acquire new skills so they can add increased value.

Recent research from management consultants McKinsey & Company suggests just five per cent of occupations are at risk of being entirely automated because as automation transforms processes, people will find job opportunities to compliment the work machines do. More anecdotally, some businesses have countered suggestions they are replacing people with claims they are actually recruiting more people than ever as a result of the increased opportunities created by a business that is more efficient and productive.

While it is true that some applications of robotics, in industries such as manufacturing are doing jobs once performed by people, there is also a growing need for skilled technical staff that are able to manage, program and monitor robots and machine processes. There are career paths opening up all the time for people who can manage the process of automation and can help companies derive greater value and deliver improved services as a result.

This is true also in areas such as customer service. So-called ‘chatbots’, where a customer will have a conversation with a robot, by phone or text, are increasingly the frontline of customer service, handling specific queries, providing information and pointing customers in the right direction for further assistance. These chatbots can reduce customer waiting times and perform an important role in quickly handling routine questions. But they will not replace people altogether, even at the front line of customer service and certainly not at the backend.

There will still be people on the phone, on email and online for customers who do not get the resolution they were seeking or whose query cannot be easily automated. People will be required to deliver a tailored, individual level of service and will have the time and support needed to do so, because automation will be taking care of the high-volume, easily resolved enquiries.

Automation in the right hands is not about making people redundant, but rather letting them focus on delivering quality of service, while automation handles quantity. It should improve both customer experience and the experience of the people delivering it.

People will also still be required to manage the processes of customer service and ensure the technical management of chatbots is up-to-date on the latest offers, initiatives and policies. These roles will be more senior, opening up opportunities for career progression not always seen on the front line of customer service.

Whatever people’s reservations, the automation of customer service is coming and it is coming fast. Oracle research has revealed 80 per cent of businesses expect to be serving customers to some extent using chatbots by 2020.

However, the truly transformative power of automation is perhaps not in automating tasks which once might have been done by people, but rather automating tasks which simply could never be done by people, such as the complex analysis of huge volumes of data in fractions of seconds.

This will enable a further revolution within customer service.

Automating the simultaneous analysis of customer data, sales data, marketing campaign data and supply chain data will enable customer services teams to offer a far more personalised, premium experience to customers, tailoring special offers and recommendations just for them.

Sectors such as retail and banking are already exploring the potential of this revolution in customer service and momentum around its adoption is gathering all the time.

We should all be in no doubt that from now on, when we are engaging with a company, whether we are speaking with a human being who is offering a great service, or communicating with a company via their website, that is an interaction which will be increasingly be enabled and improved somewhere along the line by automation.

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How to predict the future

Forecasting the future is about people, not technology, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovers on a visit to the HP Innovation Lab in Barcelona

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When HP chief technology officer Shane Wall talks about the world three decades from now, the trends to steers clear of technology. That’s startling, given that he is also global head of HP Labs, the advanced research group within the world’s leading PC and printer manufacturer.

The Labs play host to numerous futuristic technologies, from 3D printing to virtual reality, so one would expect its vision of the future to be all about the gadget. Instead, it’s all about the people who will use the gadgets of the future.

HP CTO, Shane Wall

“When we think long term, we try to look 15-20, even 30 years into the future,” he said during the HP Innovation Summit at the HP Innovation Lab outside Barcelona, Spain, last week. “The way we do it is that we don’t start with technology. In HP Labs we invent all manner of incredible things in basic areas like biology, physics, and 3D printing. Those give us an idea, but we’re careful not to extrapolate those into the future, because by extrapolating you miss disruption.

“Instead, we look at people. We’ve done this for a number of years, looking every year at what’s accelerating, what’s gone slower, what’s new. We call these megatrends, that look at humanity rather than technology.

“In 2019 we stood back and took a different look at humanity. Everyone does market segmentation, analysing who the customer is and how they buy things. Instead, we looked at economic segmentation, we looked at where the money is moving in the next 30 years. We conducted numerous interviews with economists.”

The key megatrends identified by HP for the next three decades revolve around rapid urbanisation, changing demographics, hyper-globalisation, and accelerated innovation.

Rapid urbanisation

“We’re changing where we live,” said Wall. “People are moving out of rural areas and densifying cities. Cities themselves are getting bigger. In 1991, there were 10 megacities – defined as urban areas with 10-million people or more. By 2013, there were 41, by 2030, there will be over 60. Those cities are changing the very nature of everything we do, from the nature of work to the manner of how we do product development.”

The challenge of how to get goods into cities and waste out of them, he said, will result in a much greater focus on sustainability and energy management.

“That is going to change our go-to-market approach. Currently, we focus on countries as markets. Now we are seeing how important cities are becoming. In Nigeria, you may care about all of humanity, but for sales, you care about Lagos. In China, by 2035 any tier 3 city’s gross domestic product will pass that of the entire country of Sweden.”

Changing demographics

The very nature of the population is changing, said Wall. The impact of the post-Word War 2 population boom, resulting in the American concept of “baby boomers”, has now evolved into the “silver spenders”, who are living longer thanks to healthcare advances. They expect technology to address solutions to their toughest problems.

“On the other end of the spectrum, we are seeing a whole new generation, Gen Z, a generation like we’ve never seen, very focused on experiences and values, less focused on purchasing. They are also driving a change in our behaviour as businesses in terms of go-to-market. Understanding them deeply shapes the very nature of the enterprise.”

Hyper globalisation

Wall points out that, because we live in a world that is hyper-connected, we expect things to move at speed of light, while at the same time we expect it to be local. This has given rise to the concept of “glocalisation”.

“It is the expectation that things be both global and local, thanks to connectivity and mobile phones. Startups in emerging markets growing at 20% a year. It will be not only ideas that will move at this speed, but in the near future physical goods will also move at that speed.”

Accelerated innovation

Finally, technology must, by its very nature, play a key role.

“Tech itself is moving faster; it’s not just a perception. It started with Moore’s Law and the doubling of capacity on a transistor every two years. That happened at a systems level, and eventually, it brought artificial intelligence and machine learning into being. The algorithms were invented 10-20-30 years ago, but because of scale we have seen that only now are they becoming usable.”

The impact

What does this mean for consumers and businesses? On the one hand, it represents massive opportunity. On the other, even greater challenges.

“Over the next 30 years we will see incredible economic expansion, where the number of haves with the ability to spend on products we sell is going to grow at an incredible rate. The number of have-nots will shrink. But in order to meet that economic growth, we will see a 16% shortage in skilled labour, which means we must drive higher levels of automation to reach that growth.”

A big question is: What can prevent it from happening? The answer is highly relevant to South Africa.

“The challenges lie in basic infrastructure, like roads, buildings, and airports, but one thing at the root of it all is energy. When we look into the future, energy will become the critical piece: how well, how fast, we can build it out to meet those needs. In many economies, it is not being built out in a sustainable way. We need to change the equation.”

One of the solutions lies in 3D printing.

“Products can be designed digitally anywhere, and you can transmit the design on a digital supply chain, perhaps using blockchain and security tech, to cities where they are printed or manufactured on demand using 3D printers. That’s digital manufacturing and it’s already happening in some places today.

“Imagine you go to Amazon, you find a product, you edit it, personalise it, make it yours, and at the push of a button it is printed at a local manufacturing facility and shows up at your door two days later. It’s estimated that we can save 25% of our energy using digital instead of traditional manufacturing. Manufacturing itself takes one-third of energy use the in the world, so it will have a big impact on the world of the future.”

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee



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Google launches open-source cloud for enterprises

Vendor lock-in is a thing of the past for Google Cloud users, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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A new way for enterprises to use cloud, that prevents lock-in, has been unveiled by Google at its Cloud Next event in San Francisco.

“Cloud Next is held in San Francisco, London, and Tokyo to cater for the various markets,” said Mich Atagana, head of communications for Google Africa. “The event aims to bring together cloud developers to showcase the latest cloud. You can think of it as the Google IO event for executives.”

At a round table, a team of Googlers broke it down for those of us who aren’t cloud developers. 

“There’s a lot of technicality in this event, and a lot of the magic could be lost on those who aren’t developers,” said Atagana. “That’s why we’ve assembled our Cloud team to demystify the technicality.”

Shai Morgan, head of Google Cloud Sub Saharan Africa, said: “Cloud Next started four years ago. The first one hosted 3600 attendees, while this year we hosted about 30,000. This shows the way Google moves across the industry and how we address businesses. We’ve seen large growth in our partner ecosystem. It used to be very niche players, and now it’s big players like Accenture and Deloitte using Google Cloud.”

Daniel Acton, regional tech lead for Cloud at Google, said: “We had a new CEO come in [for Google Cloud] and he said it’s all fair and well to talk about the benefits of the cloud, but it’s not always attainable for business.”

This is where Google comes in. It launched new products to assist businesses in customising the cloud, the transition to cloud platforms, and how much must remain on-premise.

First up is Anthos, a management system for hybrid environments.

Acton said: “Anthos addresses the journey to the cloud. Businesses know that this journey doesn’t happen at the snap of the fingers. Executives have to make carefully calculated decisions on how to get there. There’s also lots of friction to get to the cloud, with a big factor being cloud vendor lock-in.”

“One way to move a business to the cloud is through a ‘lift and shift’, which is simply moving all the components of the business off-premise and on the cloud. This isn’t always what a business needs. Anthos deals with “infrastructure modernisation”, which is how we go from what we got to what we need. That’s because not everything should be in the cloud. 

“We give businesses that option for hybrid infrastructure. Anthos exists to help customers on their journey to the cloud. We realise this is a multi-cloud environment and provide our customers on-premise, a bridge, and computation on the cloud, for example.”

Morgan expanded on this and said: “It’s a bridge to the cloud and a very well managed bridge at that. For an enterprise customer, it’s complicated to move assets, manage skillsets, all while thinking about lock-in to a cloud vendor. Open source in an enterprise environment prevents lock-in. We work very closely with existing vendors, walking with them in their cloud journey but they can leave at any time.

“Anthos can run on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. That’s the beauty of Open Source, no lock-in. Containerising is a method that’s popular in the cloud developer environment but moving these containers across these environments is not trivial currently. Anthos allows this to happen.”

This brings the second major feature: serverless computing.

Containers and serverless computing go hand-in-hand. Acton explained that containers are like pre-setup computers, where a developer doesn’t have to spend time setting up a virtual environment and can focus on writing code, which ultimately delivers business value. He compared the proliferation of containers to Java, with the “write once, run anyway” phrase.

Serverless computing is split into many levels. At a low level, the Google App Engine allows developers to write code, and it takes care of hosting and handling the load. This is similar to the AWS Lambda service.

The enterprise nature of Google Cloud is not exclusive to large enterprises. 

“We address very small businesses as we treat our consumers,” said Morgan “They most likely use Gmail, Drive, Docs, and Calendar because those products are free and very easy to handle. Setting up an enterprise cloud environment is quite complicated. 

“If one invests enough time and energy, one can start a business that adds value and has its computing backed by Google Cloud.”

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