How our economy works and our country competes will be deeply challenged by powerful new technological and economic forces
SYMBOLISED by the robot, the merger of manufacturing, automation and artificial intelligence is having a profound impact on almost every industry, and promises greater wealth for successful companies and economies around the world.
However, as “smart factories” and other manifestations of the “fourth industrial revolution” evolve and higher profits beckon, significant social and security risks need to be understood with open eyes and safeguards installed.
These issues were central to the 7th meeting of Malaysia’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC), a group of distinguished national and international leaders in economics, business, science and technology — a “sounding board” guiding the nation’s route to developed country status in an environmentally sustainable way.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is the science adviser to the prime minister and secretary of GSIAC. The GSIAC 7th meeting was hosted by Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT)
Chaired by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the GSIAC met in New Delhi during his recent state visit to India. Discussions centred on “Industry 4.0”, a term coined in Germany in 2011 to describe the transformations being caused by the fusion of mechanised tools of production, devices such as computers and sensors, the Internet, artificial intelligence and more.
In Germany, the United States and other developed countries, truly smart systems are being built to, for example, aggregate and analyse raw data in real time to inform decisions, or to anticipate and self-diagnose production problems, perhaps making decisions and triggering needed adjustments on their own.
The impressive impact of
this trend has many examples, like these:
DATA captured by sensors at an African gold mine produced a new understanding that led to changes in a key process, increasing yield by almost four per cent — resulting in a US$20 million (RM88.7 million) annual bonus for shareholders;
AN automaker using advanced analytics examined which features customers include most often when configuring vehicle options online as well as actual global sales data and slashed its number of available options — along with its production and development costs; and,
IN Asia, DNA technology is used now in a system to detect durian fruit on the market mislabelled “product of Malaysia”, the world’s most valuable durian, thereby protecting our agricultural industry from fraud.
The convergence of information technologies, devices and automation represents the fourth industrial evolution — from steam-driven machines in the 1800s to assembly lines and mass production, to the computer, to today.
Robots, the emblem of this latest progression, are used most commonly to produce electronics, automobiles, metal products, plastics and chemicals, performing tasks like welding, painting and packaging. And, from 1993 to 2007, robots replaced 670,000 US workers, amid forecasts that robots there will quadruple in number.
In the near future, we may see them proliferate also at street level, in the form of self-driving cars and lorries, delivery drones and other marvels.
Meanwhile, technology is upending white collar work environments, too. At the GSIAC meeting, one expert noted how a US firm cut 75 per cent from its US$500,000 budget for human resources by turning much of its personnel recruitment over to the online social media site, LinkedIn. And, in some countries, supercomputers are being created to offer fast, accurate legal, credit and insurance services at lower cost than highly-educated professionals.
In Malaysia, automation of some palm harvesting processes is slowly under way and technologies will soon enable the management of plantations to the individual tree, with 3D images tracking the number of fruits — and sensors monitoring the health — of each tree: precision agriculture.
Entire global industrial supply chains will soon be linked through smart technologies, improving quality and output, reducing costs and downtime, and increasing market share and profit.
Those compelling benefits come with significant costs and risks, however, led by cybersecurity issues — the vulnerability of manufacturing processes and “the Internet of Things” to hackers, for example — protecting proprietary knowhow, the potential instability and unreliability of machine-to-machine communication, and the loss of jobs, especially those of lower-educated workers.
How our economy works and our country competes will be deeply challenged by these powerful new technological and economic forces. To avoid being left behind in tomorrow’s economy, these issues need to be thoroughly understood and embraced by Malaysians, with all that entails for our national economic and educational strategies.
GSIAC members noted that over half of future jobs don’t exist today — Bitcoin/cryptocurrency banker or drone traffic optimisation expert, for example.
Jerry Hultin, co-founder and chairman of the board of directors of Global Futures Group, believes many new jobs will involve creativity, entertainment or design, for example, or caring for people, education, sports and recreation — “areas in which the human element adds value and gives people satisfaction”.
As the meeting concluded, the prime minister observed how policymakers are challenged to provide an education that prepares today’s youth for such a future.
The answer, he noted, lies in how young people learn to learn, and the quality of their thought process — to fire imaginations and liberate minds to imagine and thrive in the next industrial age.
“If we get it right, we will have the quality of life that our forefathers never enjoyed. It is the kind of future that we need to build, and I am excited about it.”
It’s clear that maintaining Malaysia’s envied global economic competitiveness requires us to train and keep the best young talent we have, both to structure and manage companies, and to safeguard our interests. We also need to call on the brightest brains to help plan for inevitable disruptions that come with change. In all these respects, we are grateful to have the expertise of the GSIAC to light our path.