In many ways Covid-19 will come to fundamentally change the ways in which we live and work. It will signal the end of industries, transform others, and create entirely new segments of the economy. Countries around the world are therefore embroiled in a process of ‘hyper-acceleration’ – the rapid transition towards trends that may have existed previously, but now are coming towards us at a profound pace.
Every year these big ideas and emerging verticals are heavily discussed and debated during two big tech gatherings during the week of 8 June: The CogX Festival and London Tech Week – these events are seen as an important coming together of the UK’s tech leaders along with international investors and tech companies to plot a course forward.
This year, both CogX and London Tech Week’s #LTWConnects moved to virtual formats – this has not stopped prominent leaders from around the UK and overseas from participating including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair as well as prominent investors such as Tim Draper from Silicon Valley.
CogX now represents one of the UK’s landmark tech events and is considered the leading festival of AI and breakthrough technology. Last week, it focused on answering a major question for the private-sector and policymakers alike; ‘how do we get the next 10 years right?’.
I was the ‘MC’ for one of the critical strands of this debate at CogX: What is the next generation of infrastructure from which individuals, companies and governments will build and experience the major technological advancements that are on the horizon. A core component of this is going to be robotics and the UK’s place in the global race towards greater and greater automation.
The signs are already prevalent of this movement within certain industries such as manufacturing and agriculture – where robots have been replacing humans for years, and taking on the repetitious and time intensive roles that machines of their time were well equipped to do. Now we are emerging in a world where smart robotics start to come to the fore across the majority of sectors and industries.
Social distancing measures are in part to blame for the increased deployment of robotics – in the US there are examples of machines disinfecting supermarkets, and in South Korea robots have been tasked with distributing hand sanitisers and taking temperatures. Moving forwards, organisations are going to be thinking harder than ever about where machines can take on processes and where human beings keeping two meters apart will not be suitable.
At CogX the debate was reignited on whether robotics should be seen as friend or foe, and whether their accelerated implementation in the economy will cost jobs or save them. And while there is no great consensus on this – much of the discussion spoke to the role that machines can play in enhancing and supplementing jobs. As we emerge from this pandemic, health security is going to be at the top of many agendas – and therefore we should be strongly considering how advanced technologies can make employees safer at work and enable people to live better lives.
Complementing the growth in robotics, the debate at CogX moved to another major component of the UK’s digital infrastructure – the cloud. With the almost overnight move to an economy being driven from people’s home offices and kitchen tables – firms across sectors have been ploughing vast sums of investment into cloud technologies to both enable collaborative tools and to host the great uplift in data that is being created, shared and accessed remotely.
The cloud undoubtedly offers an array of opportunities for businesses to operate uninterrupted from anywhere in the world, and the UK specifically is home to a great many startups and scaleups that are building technologies that work alongside the cloud. But yet, we must caution the potential risks of a great sprint towards the cloud and fully understand the implications of big tech companies exclusively hosting all of a company’s data.
Finally, and one of the most important points of discussion when it comes to the next generation of digital infrastructure is – bringing everyone on the journey. The enormity of the investment that is needed in order to make the UK match-fit for the future cannot be underestimated.
From robotics to the cloud, 5G, IoT sensors and artificial intelligence – the foundations of a more digitalised tomorrow are absolutely critical and if we are to continue on this path of hyper-acceleration we need to help people to understand how this infrastructure can transform lives for the better – so that we commit in the long-term.
Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates