Flying high: Emerging drone and AI technology is changing our world

21 Jun 2017 |

Dr Catherine Ball, ‘Dame of Drones’, works on global projects involving the non-military use of drones, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). She spoke at the Mobile-ising Women in Business conference in Adelaide on 27 June 2017 about how this technology is changing our lives. Ahead of the event, she shared some insights with Biz Better Together.

Dr Catherine Ball:

Sky-is-the-limit technology

Drones are a platform technology; what they do is collect, carry and deliver data (or things). It isn’t the drone technology itself that’s so amazing, although of course it is wonderful tech; but it’s when you look at what the drones can do that it becomes so exciting.

Some of the applications for drones are amazing, like helping people do things more safely, particularly in areas like mining and emergency responses. This technology can be used for exploration, automation and transportation.

I don’t find new technology daunting, or threatening, I actually see it as something that’s a huge opportunity. I think in the future, particularly in business, it’s going to be critical to be receptive to emerging technologies and actively seeking the potential benefits. Making the most of new technologies will give businesses an edge, and in such a time of massive change, this will be essential for businesses to survive.

Change is an irresistible force

Change is here, and more is coming, whether businesses resist it or not. There are some big companies in Australia doing some great work around innovation, like NAB and CBA. We also have companies like Rio Tinto adopting driverless vehicle technology; there are mines now in WA where all the trucks are driverless and they are all controlled back in Perth. This has benefits for the company from a health and safety perspective as well as the cost perspective.

If businesses want to change in some cases they have to rally so they can get the law changed to allow them to innovate. In the UK the tractor manufacturer John Deere has produced GPS controlled driverless tractors, which are going around the fields. In Australia, it’s my understanding that the law states you have to have a human being in that tractor. So what’s the point of having driverless technology or of even trying to apply it if the law doesn’t let you use it?

There’s a number of things in Australia like legislation and risk-averse business practices that have been holding us back with technology like drones and driverless vehicles, and we need to get that sorted. Australia has slipped down the global innovation index by 2 points; it has slipped down global rankings in terms of gender diversity, and could these things be connected? I’d say they are, because in order to innovate you need to have a diverse portfolio of staff.

Diversity and innovation are two sides of the same coin. You see this in nature, and there is plenty of research supporting how important it is in business. There are studies coming out of Harvard that show if you want to have an innovative business you need to have diversity at all levels.

Adapting to change and bridging the skills gap

There is already a skills gap here; the number of jobs that need STEM skills exceeds the supply of people with those skills and that gap is growing faster than we can graduate people. And this isn’t just about school kids. There are people in the workforce, in their fifties and sixties who are losing ‘traditional’ jobs but they still have skill sets that can be transferred, they just need to be recognised and offered training.

This is the fourth industrial revolution but it’s not a departure from the way human beings have been running our industries for the last few hundred years. New technology creates jobs, it doesn’t cost them. The nature of the work changes, and people can struggle to recognise that there are opportunities because these new jobs are not traditional roles, they’re not traditional vocations that people have been trained for.

This new technology coming out of the fourth industrial revolution is going to give us more time to be human. To spend time with our families, and to have time to look at the bigger picture, like how to preserve our planet.

Humans like routine and we don’t like change. This means we’re slow to look for new opportunities and we’re sometimes slow to understand the potential in technology. Robots are not going to come along and take all our jobs. There are some jobs they can do, but the important thing to remember is that artificial intelligence is different to being human.

The changes are coming so fast now you have to keep up, you need to understand the technology and what it means for your business. And if you don’t have the time to do that yourself, then you need to work with someone who does. This is where I think the small and medium enterprises are going to be able to assist each other, forming a network for support and information. What someone else knows can save you a lot of time and energy. You don’t have to do it on your own.

Disruption to industry, business and society

The effects are going to be enormous. Take one example, real estate. A property can be attractive in the city if it has a car parking space with it, and that increases the value. But what happens when you don’t need a car park anymore? What’s it going to look like when businesses can deliver a product to a customer inside 30 minutes using a drone? Or when you can go online and find a dress you like and have it 3-D printed to your exact measurements, and delivered to your house by drone? And the next step would be that you have a 3-D printer in your home, and what you actually purchase is a downloadable design file. This will have enormous impact on a huge range of industries, let alone individual businesses.

Some people have a preference to go into a bricks and mortar store and see the fabric of that dress, feel the fabric, physically try it on rather than relying on measurements or even a virtual simulation. But it may well come to a time where you no longer have that choice. We do for now, and I think we still will for a few years yet; it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

You can’t now say that technology like drones and artificial intelligence don’t have anything to do with you and don’t affect you or your business. They do, and this will only have a bigger impact as time goes on. You have to keep up, because one lesson science and history has taught us is that there’s no future for those who can’t – or won’t – adapt to change.

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