Scotland and technological innovations having a global impact go hand-in-hand. An enduring reputation for sheer ingenuity. Now another cluster of stand-out bright ideas is emerging, this time on the digital horizon.
Many of the country's key inventors rarely had it easy, largely through mistrust over their invention. What if the doubters had won? Imagine a world without the telephone or television. It should be easier this time around. The next most likely stars are likely to come from the country's enviable position in the European, and indeed global, space sector with Scottish tech chosen by NASA, for example, to explain climate change.
Also, the burgeoning green energy ecosystem. Backed up by predominantly artificial intelligent (AI) start-ups and spinouts from the country's 19 universities, and driven by initiatives like the Converge 'Springboard' Challenge. Time will tell if any turn out to be as seismic as the phone and TV. Or MRI scanner, ATM, pneumatic tyre, steam engine, postage stamp, Encyclopedia Britannica
, radar, vacuum flask and steam engine, come to that.
In this modern era, one thing new ventures will share is being influenced, to varying degrees, by continuous automation capabilities and solutions. New York's UiPath, with a market capitalisation of around £6.5bn ($8bn), has hit town saying it can 'remove the friction' between a good idea and its successful execution. I received exclusive insight into how this particular American tech market leader, who partners with Microsoft, Google and Amazon, is significantly lowering the barriers between what they describe as the 'vision' and 'reality' of robotic process automation (RPA).
RPA is already changing the way each and every one of us work and play. Take 'home automation'. We're all well used to embracing such tech through the Internet of Things (IoT) and 'smart' devices becoming integral to our everyday culture. IoT now involves common everyday activities we take very much for granted: heating, lighting, air conditioning, multi-media applications, security/camera systems. You name it.
Harvard Business Review
(HBR) reports most organisations adopting RPA have promised their employees that automation will not result in layoffs, with workers instead redeployed to do 'more interesting' work. Conversely, some analysts wonder if it represents a threat favouring the creation of 'high-value' jobs but decreasing opportunity to the low-skilled.
Yet Scotland's economic future depends crucially on closing the skills gap by increasing career specialisms, especially science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) roles. HBR prefers to think of RPA as instrumental towards driving a new wave of productivity and efficiency gains in the global labour market. A recent McKinsey Tech Index singles out automation as the top trend moving ahead, pointing to a common misconception that it involves towering robotics.
You know the kind: 'Transformer' metal giants regularly found in sci-fi computer/mobile games or blockbuster movies, either saving or destroying the planet. Rather, it can be as simple as a set of tools housed within common business programs with a system completing repetitive and easily replicated tasks, without the need for human labour. In the recent past, automation required expensive servers plus a team of experts to maintain them. For many small organisations, this was a cost-prohibitive measure placing automation out of reach.
Lately, with the development of cloud-based platforms, automation tools are now readily accessible. Everyday examples include workplace email marketing, talent acquisition and hiring, sales and customer service and human resources. RPA has become more sophisticated through machine learning as a driver opening the door to perform 'high-order' tasks in addition to basic repetitive work.
This is where UiPath comes in, with co-chief executive Rob Enslin stressing that automated tasks can excel in their 'transparency, security and complete flexibility' in usage. He moved from his role as Google's president of cloud sales a little over a year ago with a mission to help the company's founder take it to the next level. For Enslin, up until recently RPA had 'no intelligence in it' but this is now all changing and faster than we expected.
ChatGPT is much in the news mainly over worries of it being too powerful and in need of early regulation. Enslin says the OpenAI platform represents an 'awakening' of artificial intelligence. He told Forbes.com we're at a tipping point, where it's finally time to rid the world of monotonous, labour-intensive, low-value work by unleashing the power of automation, with the potential to solve the hardest problems organisations face whilst improving employee experiences. All encapsulated in a business automation platform. His colleague Brandon Deer, chief strategy officer, told Opto Sessions its RPA products, such as Clipboard AI, shift that burden of repetitive, mundane tasks by reading documents and emails, and analysing language and images. In essence, understanding the 'intent and content' of modern communications.
Mind you, it doesn't matter how brilliant a product or service might be, he adds. Customer reviews are a primary touchpoint and only valuable if a business acts after reading them. Research from Deloitte reveals that those who put the customer experience first are 60% more profitable than competitors.
Best-selling co-author of A World Without Work
, Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, Oxford, who was a policy adviser in the UK Prime Minister's strategy unit and Cabinet Office, says robots are taking over low-skilled jobs and AI middle-skilled occupations. From healthcare to banking to retail, processes are being automated, insights uncovered, costs reduced and the customer experience significantly improved, along with analysing consumer behaviour and trends, and detecting fraud quickly and accurately.
UiPath's Chris Forrest, vice president (strategic accounts) for Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA), amplified what has become known as 'Intelligent Automation' (IA) to me during a visit to Scotland, where he used to be country manager for Microsoft. IA represents a combination of methods involving people, organisations and technologies to address the broad requirements of a modern enterprise organisation. This enables it to deal with complicated workflows by understanding and processing documents, voice and other unstructured data along with automating testing sequences; augmenting these functions with natural language processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The level of human involvement essentially defines how automated a process is.
So where are the next bright ideas coming from? London Economics singles out the Scottish Space cluster as likely to create and produce innovations. It reports that Scotland has gained a reputation as a science-focused and technologically advanced country, and its manufacturing and applications capabilities are both 'UK and Europe leading' in areas including Earth observation, digital technologies and advanced forming. The NASA work involves monitoring the climate in Antartica.
London Economics estimates the cluster's Gross Value Added contribution to be around £880m, equivalent to 14% of the UK-wide industry, with Scots manufacturing generating 32% of British GVA, and worth £254m in 2017/18, employing more than 7,500 skilled people.
Renewables/green energy and linked supply chain support more than 27,000, generating £5.6bn of output in 2020, involving skilled jobs such as project managers, engineers and environmental consultants, lawyers and analysts. It represents Scotland's main source of electricity, playing a leading role in tackling climate change.
A stand-out idea is likely to come from career paths like My World at Work and the Green Jobs Workforce Academy, both delivered by Skills Development Scotland. Scottish Government funding of £7m has just been announced for 32 projects to drive innovation in production, storage and distribution of renewable hydrogen.
Given Scotland's predominant academic position, it's no surprise to learn that AI is at the heart of a new wave of innovative companies coming out of the country's 19 Scottish universities, reports the Converge Challenge. The start-up support scheme has unveiled its latest 100 start-ups supported to turn ideas for products and services into reality. Pressing subjects include the climate emergency, health conditions and childhood literacy. Converge points to a new report from Beauhurst database platform confirming that Edinburgh is the top start-up hub outside London.
A new cluster of bright ideas is undoubtedly heading our way, underscored by IA/RPA/AI. However, economist Daniel Susskind warns that with great power comes great responsibility. New technologies have always provoked panic about workers being replaced by machines, claims that are 'largely misplaced', he says. But challenges do exist requiring early planning and development of strong ethical and privacy frameworks to ensure high standards of governance.
These are sentiments highly resonant with the takeaway from UiPath's joint-CEO Rob Enslin. Such hyperautomation lies at the heart of digitalisation as a business imperative, allowing rapid acceleration in digital transformation to deliver a direct route to a vital return-on-investment (ROI). However, it must be navigated with an emphasis on the triple focus he mentioned earlier: yes flexibility but also transparency and security, in equal measures. 'Digital trust' is how Technopedia puts it. Where individuals and organisations must have implicit confidence in this age of 'intelligent' automation-driven innovations that are increasingly handling every aspect of our busy lives.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'