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Are We Investing Enough In Technology?

The stats would suggest not - perhaps a surprise considering that, these days, it’s not especially unusual to be able to get lost in a VR world in your living room, order more milk at the instant verbal command of a home device, or discover that you’ve been talking to a live chat robot for the last ten minutes instead of a human customer service representative.  

Nonetheless, compared to other major economies, the UK’s R&D spending (as a proportion of GDP) is lagging, with only 1.70% of GDP spent in 2015 – below the OECD average of 2.40% and far below the leaders, which include Israel (4.25%), South Korea (4.23) and Japan (3.49%), while the USA comes in just above the average at 2.79% of GDP. When you look at longer-term trends, government spending on R&D has been on secular decline since the 80s, and the private sector has been unable to offset this drop.

Perhaps this is why, in the recent budget speech, UK Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced several measures aimed at boosting the tech sector, including £500m of support for 5G mobile networks, full fiber broadband and AI and £540m to support the growth of electric cars, including more charging points. A further £2.3bn is allocated for investment in R&D and £30m to develop digital skills distance learning courses.

John Straw, a leading speaker on disruptive innovation and technology, comments, “Certainly the UK is starting to lag (especially SME) in productivity - as we know from the recent budget. The problem that needs solving though is "use cases": in other words, what problems or opportunities can tech like AI and Big Data actually solve for my business? Much of the tech is available as Cloud-sourced (e.g. IBM Watson AI is available through the Cloud) as is Salesforce AI CRM, so it doesn't require capital expenditure."

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He continues, "France is a good example of where tech is used aggressively, driven mostly by a labour code which makes French SMEs hire new staff so that they resort to tech. This is why French unemployment is higher than the UK, but productivity is also higher than the UK. Meanwhile, Germany, recognising much of its tax receipts are generated from "Mittelstand" (medium-sized business) is investing at a federal level - recently creating a $1billion AI fund for the benefit of this important business sector."

The question is: SHOULD we be investing more in tech? Is it even that good for us? (Cue: Black Mirror, Season 3.)

Gadget Show presenter Georgie Barrat, who discusses all things related to tech as a keynote speaker and facilitator, adopts a generally positive view of technology:  

“I’m excited about technology.We do need to be aware of the drawbacks of AI and robots, but, ultimately, it’s going to be a force for good. It has the potential to eradicate poverty and disease; AI combined with quantum computing in our lifetime will make a huge impact on the way we live and get about the place; autonomous vehicles will be safer, cleaner and more efficient; and I think that it will take jobs that are dull, repetitive, dirty and dangerous, which will leave people to go off to pursue different things.”

She adds, “Don’t get me wrong, things are going to hugely change; there’s no doubt about it that AI and robots are going to take millions of jobs, and we shouldn’t be naïve about that. It will certainly be quite difficult when people are displaced and trying to decide what they want to do next. Conversations do need to be had (and they are being had), and we need appropriate legislation to be passed, but I believe that there will be huge positives."

So, can a robot ever replace a human being?

"When it comes to future-proofing ourselves in AI and robots, we really must reflect on what makes us human, and a massive thing about us is empathy, something that robots are not, and will never be, capable of," says Georgie. "Being human is about adding emotional value to your work and thinking more creatively. Those are the bits that we really need to lean on and know that it’s going to be okay because we are unique in what we do."

John Straw also comments on how he thinks new technologies will affect jobs over the next 20 to 30 years. “Some of the benefits of tech (specifically workplace robots) are going to cause major social and economic upheaval. I was reading recently about a small business that was having to put up the wages of its 4 employees to the new minimum wage level - for this business, barely profitable, it's a big problem and will lead to one of the workers being laid off. The interesting choice for the owner is that she will be offered to "rent a robot" at, say £5.00/per hour versus the current £7.50 - a no-brainer for the business owner. “

He continues, “I see the most positive benefits accruing to healthcare - the advances in robotics, AI and DNA profiling are enabling a whole new era of "pre-emptive " medicine that will dramatically cut the cost of treatment by removing the problem before the problem becomes a treatable problem. There is a lot of good news here but there are significantly more consequences then we have ever had to deal with before. AI is arriving by stealth (chatbots being a classic example when you are talking to a webchat support service you may have "triage" done by a decision tree based robot) - the way it’s being built by the media is that it will arrive in a tsunami - it won’t, and we'll never notice it... ”

And, of course, the escalating concerns surrounding cyber-crime also need to be addressed. As cybersecurity speaker James Lyne commented in betanews, "We're now living in a digital economy, where anything and everything can be connected or automated.”

“Unfortunately, as we increasingly move our society and commerce online, we face two challenges -- the growing opportunity for cyber criminals to attack us, and the lack of skilled security practitioners to keep these opportunistic individuals at bay. We, therefore, welcome the announcement that the UK Government will invest more in building British skills in computer science and digital competencies, in addition to fortifying the current security of the nation’s mobile infrastructure".

So, whether you have a positive or negative view of technology, what is certain is that tech is the future and is going to change our lives; and if we are going keep up with its changing pace and steer it in the right direction to help, rather than hinder us, as society, an investment in research and skills in the area appears more important than ever.

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