At the first-ever Future of Work Virtual Conference hosted by CNBC Africa, in partnership with FORBES AFRICA, on August 20, in which more than 2,000 global viewers engaged with industry experts on digital opportunities for the continent, the very first thought-provoking discussion that set the mood for the day was on ‘Turbocharging productivity: what automation, machine learning and AI can do for your business’.
The panel was moderated by Jonny Caplan, Founder, CEO & Executive Producer, Tech Talk Media, and he was joined by Lars Bøgvad Jeppesen, Co-Founder CEO at Enadoc and Tech One Global, Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika Initiatives, Benjamin Rosman, Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Pankaj Shrivastava, Business Leader – Architecture, Software & LV Products, Rockwell Automation.
Any mention of cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation and machine learning always brings with it the concomitant questions: will humans be replaced by robots? Is AI something to be feared or embraced?
The experts on the panel each outlined practical applications and industry trends.
Rosman defined AI as: “The application of technologies to optimize some process, and usually in our modern incarnation, if it’s driven by data. So it’s anywhere we’re using data to try and do something more efficiently.”
“People like to talk about employees and employee engagement in this whole move to AI and cloud process automation. It’s easy to get absorbed with the productivity gains that can be done just at the outset of the back-end,” said Jeppesen. The reality is AI is influencing our lives daily.
“Data processing has gone to such a granularity in terms of what data can be gathered from employees,” concurred Abdella.
“Whether you’re looking at agriculture or manufacturing, what exactly is it that we’re going to use the data for? There’s a question around policy governance and data residency that is very much top-of-mind for a lot of policy-makers,” she urged.
Rosman cautioned that it’s always difficult to predict the future. “But the reality is there’s obviously a massive uptake [of AI] from all over the world.
“The rigidity is one of the common misconceptions around how modern artificial intelligence works. They’re much more flexible.”
None of this would be possible without the cloud. “Now an entrepreneur can come up with an idea in the morning and before lunch, you could actually roll out a prototype of that idea,” said Jeppesen.
In the age and aftermath of Covid-19, augmented reality could be key in a factory setting, explained Shrivastava. “Covid-19 has presented a very different situation where the staff are unable to go to the site to do maintenance.
“Using augmented reality, they are able to troubleshoot, and get a machine up and running in a very short time.”
“Covid has allowed us to understand what we need to do to continue the rhythm of business,” explained Abdella. “And we’ll continue to see a faster adoption of technology. We are training our workforce, especially the youth, not just for jobs that we can see today, but really making sure that they also have the skills to go into it tomorrow as well.”
Rosman jumped in to say “there is also a false narrative around how we think about the interaction of automation and jobs. We need to take stock of what this means in terms of everything from work-life balance to general employee happiness, and actually think about our metrics such as GDP”.
“Automation, when you look at artificial intelligence, is there to stay,” said Shrivastava. “It will be very important for individuals, corporates and governments to keep a very open mind about this technology because it is changing lives.”