You could be forgiven for thinking you were in two different universes. On the one hand, presentations at the recent Sapics conference held in Cape Town focused on things such as working out your maintenance stock for a Dutch railway, or cutting two months off the lead time for shoe leather. Or bringing practitioners out of retirement to mentor interns.
Then there were the amazing ones on robots governing our lives to the point that the resultant unemployment should be viewed as positively sexy.
“Supply Chain Today” heard comments such as ‘this stuff is too basic for me’, to ‘what has this got to do with supply chain?’ However, there were also delegates who enjoyed the event and said they’d be back next year.
Sean Culey of Manucore (UK)
Keynote speaker, Sean kicked off by using the word ‘disruptive’, a word bandied about liberally at the conference.
He explained that cycles come in waves commencing with Innovation, followed by Application, then Adoption, followed by Diffusion and Saturation and ending with Re-birth, which is where we are now.
Innovations have been 1) engines 2) mechanisation 3) internet and 4) computing power which is where we find ourselves and which will necessitate the creative destruction of the old in the midst of uncertainty and volatility.
In fact, he used the word ‘apocalypse’. Uber owns no cars. Amazon owns no stores. In the US, traditional retail is under severe pressure. Robotics are replacing muscles, and machines will run machines
Sean tells us that in agriculture a machine can now tell the difference between a plant and a weed. The audience breathes a sigh – we can relate to this. But then he asks, “Why have farms at all? Do we even need farms seeing as though the world’s first indoor farm is in operation in Japan?
Autonomous ports will control autonomous ships. Your new workmate will be a robot, also called a co-bot because he/she/it will collaborate with you through your day – well, for a while anyway. Human evolution takes years, robot evolution takes months, so ROI will now be measured in months not years.
And this will take place close to home. No more manufacturing in an exotic far-off destination. We can re-shore (back to our shores) because it will be economical to do so. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) will allow us to order a slew of chemicals and a small machine which will be told to print (build up layer upon layer of material to a make a pre-determined item) right in the store, office or at home.
A 3D printed bridge has gone up in Amsterdam while 4D printing will allow for intelligent material to ‘obey’ instructions by expanding in water for example. Previously, barges in the Netherlands were all about recreation and drinks on deck. Make way for barges being used as water drones.
Actually make way for the robot across the board. 45 000 robots are beavering away in Amazon warehouses. Every action performed by a human that previously cost 44c is coming in at 21c per robot action. The 2.5 billion dollars saved is being ploughed into making more robots. Amazon has no stores, will it have warehouses? Amazon is contemplating using a massive airship (à la Zeppelin) to act as a heavenly warehouse from which drones are discharged.
Sean tells us that 5G is going to make downloading an entire season of “Game of Thrones” a 10-second affair, and that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years.
Then he talks of quantum computing. Our heads are going to spin. He describes computing in 2015 to that of a mouse’s IQ. By 2018 it will be akin to a chimp and by 2045 it will replicate the intelligence of humans. Yes, but what about our ability to analyse and process? Stand aside, machines will learn, analyse and process. On Youtube there’s a video of robots learning how to cook by watching Youtube!
At this stage, we’re wondering if we’ll be necessary at all in the knowledge that industrial thinking does not work in a digital world. Israel is printing stem cells.
Craig Collins, Cradle Technology Services
To me the most enjoyable of the presentations, Craig took us into the future for real. As humans struggle to keep up with the machine, we will be able to become transhuman. We will use neural lace technology and Transcranial Direct-current Stimulation (TDCS) to augment our bodies. A current through our brain will supercharge us, speeding up our reaction times, rebooting our bodies and even curing death.
Packing bags onto pallets will be a non-job. In 2015 in an East London factory, 32 workers were replaced with four robots at R80 000 apiece. There’ll be no slacking either – in future, the security guards could well be robots.
And we won’t be needed to programme the robots. Many human programmers today assemble code by looking at patterns and other codes. They do not create from scratch which will no different for a computer (AI – artificial intelligence).
Don’t think you’ll beat the system by encrypting your data. Craig tells us that robots will be able to crack any code imaginable but scarier still, they’ll be able to replace it with an uncrackable one – there goes your re-run of ‘Enigma.’
So what are humans going to do with their time exactly? Craig talks of unprecedented productivity and abundance. AI will require no labour input and virtually no brain power as it takes over most tasks, leading to a massive amount of free time and self-determination. But also massive unemployment, greater inequality, poverty, hunger, panic and chaos, civil uprising, lack of purpose and motivation.
With unemployment a given, Craig supports the idea of a universal basic income (www.basicincome.org. www.givedirectly.org). Essentially a social grant that gets recipients quite a bit over the breadline in order to meet all basic human needs. It will be expensive but save on crime, health costs, that of current programmes and the accompanying corruption.
But the unemployed don’t just want hand-outs and to ‘shut up’ nor do the rich want to pay more tax. Craig reckons governments are printing money anyway so he suggests they shell out for one year and then let the money flow. However, they should strongly reward entrepreneurial efforts through tax breaks for example. Business owners need to automate but need to acknowledge their responsibility to society.
Laziness must be encouraged and being unemployed must be sexy. If there are going to be no jobs/very few jobs, what do we teach our kids? Craig suggests we allow them to learn what and how they want. Encourage entrepreneurship thinking, teach the use of apps to do everything, foster skills in sales, content creation and communication, as well as artistic pursuits.
Craig tells us that the best source of creativity is a person free of instruction and direction. Free from work, we can focus on building businesses, skills and happiness.
Kate Stubbs, Barloworld Logistics
Whew! And then Kate Stubbs brought up the question of logic, intuition and gut. You know someone (or something) has pushed the ‘wrong button’ somewhere and the computer is spewing out nonsensical answers or you are being instructed to do something which goes against your gut. Business is about relationships. She asks where does experience come in and the ability to recognise coherent results. How do you recognise and affirm the results?
She gives an example of an incident where pilots of a Pan Am flight in trouble ignored the instructions of the plane’s computer to divert to an airport, and chose to land safely on the Hudson River (true story). The pilots were hauled over the coals for failing to obey the computer. Let’s just say that, after the fact, it took 17 tries on the simulator before pilots who followed the ‘divert’ instructions were able to do so successfully!
Kate also talks of driverless cars. Did you know that 5.7 million sq metres in the US is assigned to parking cars which sit idle most of the time? In fact, why own the car in the first place? Kate takes it further describing the possibility of not only renting cars exclusively but renting the lawnmower too, for instance. All the men resonated with this one as did the women with the ‘print your own shoes at home’ example.
Clem Sunter – author and scenario planner
To wrap up, Clem in true Clem fashion gave us an overview of how things stand globally on the political and social fronts. In South Africa, he warns against corruption but this is being countered somewhat by media freedom and social media evidenced by people ‘pushing back’. The ANC lost three major cities as a result.
He talks of no progress without infrastructure and that good education is not about throwing money at it. Rather teachers and principals should be held accountable. He suggests that parents should sit on school boards and have a real say in the running of each school.
Leadership is an issue here especially as government sets the scene and entrepreneurs lead the charge if only through pockets of excellence such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the US.
He reiterates that traditional jobs are being destroyed by technology and that small business should be seen as the main event and not a sideline. Clem is clear on the possible threat of public violence (more so than crime) and finally, he warns that South Africa has been the premier economy in Africa for the past 150 years but now Egypt and Nigeria are nipping at our heels.
Overall, the presentations were enjoyable. Useful – not sure?