Tech leaders: ‘next industrial revolution’ is coming, will be positive but with challenges

by Jennifer Joyner ( 502 views 

It’s the opinion of Todd Lohr that artificial intelligence has permeated daily personal life and in a matter of time will infiltrate the workplace, so employers should be prepared.

Lohr, a principal at KPMG of Chicago, and fellow business leaders discussed “digital enablement” at the GPA Workforce 2025 Summit at the Walmart Museum on Friday (Aug. 25). The summit was presented by the talent training software company Grandslam Performance Associates of Fayetteville.

Lohr works in design and implementation of automation technologies, including business process management and robotic process automation. He pointed to cognitive technology at use in individual’s personal lives, including self-stopping motor vehicles and voice-controlled artificial intelligence available through home and mobile devices.

“When you leave here your smartphones might tell you how long it is going to take to get home,” he said.

In fact, when Lohr’s 7-year-old daughter asked when he would teach her to drive, he said he wouldn’t. Lohr predicts most people won’t be driving in nine years, because the widespread use of autonomous vehicles — having eliminated the element of human error — will have driven up insurance rates too high for human drivers.

In essence, Lohr believes the world will be very different within a decade, and changes in the professional world are already underway. Nearly half (45%) of jobs can be automated, said Lohr, citing a 2015 study from McKinsey & Co.

“It’s not just certain job categories. It’s going after all job categories,” Lohr added.

Calling the rise of artificial intelligence the “next industrial revolution,” Lohr predicts the changes will be “very positive,” though not without its challenges.

“It’s not a dystopian future. Human value will remain unparalleled,” he said.

A few examples of areas affected by emerging tech include drones and small package vehicles and autonomous vehicles in transportation, drug discovery and patient monitoring and care in healthcare, fraud detection and investment management in finance, and accounting, risk management and customer care in general business operations, Lohr said.

Today’s accounting students, for example, likely will enter a job market where much of their profession will be automated.

“Are we preparing them for the jobs here today or the jobs that will be here in the next 5 years?” he said.

Gemma Kubat, vice president global business services, process and automation at Wal-Mart Stores, said because no one knows how tech will affect the future, the key is to teach “all around agility and adaptability.” Wal-Mart employees are positively reacting to new technology, she said.

“What we’re doing is augmenting people’s work.”

For example, the company is testing a chatbot to field specific questions from employees about invoices. It’s often a simple question and response that doesn’t require human involvement, Kubat said. However, if the issue gets more complicated, the bot will then connect the individual to another employee who can help them. When processes are streamlined, it provides an opportunity to “please our customer base, she said.

“Associates feel better about the work they’re doing. Associates are happier. It’s a nice ecosystem if it’s implemented properly.”

Kubat said she does not see automation shrinking Wal-Mart’s workforce, partly because the company continues to enter new markets and create new services.

“Also, the business will become more complex because technology allows it to,” she said.

Cody Katzer, human resources director for Wal-Mart’s supply chain, said new technologies will create related jobs. He also reported a positive reaction from employees when the company integrates artificial intelligence.

“They get to repurpose their energies into more meaningful work,” Katzer said. “That is what’s really lighting up the eyes of our associates. They’re tackling more critical, thought-driven processes or issues, versus performing menial tasks.”

Lohr echoed Katzer and Kubat’s sentiments. The companies he works with have reported improved employee satisfaction, he said.

“We’re taking off some of the mundane tasks. Reallocating those resources to new jobs,” Lohr said.

The challenge, he said, is “How do you bring those people along, and how are you going to get them from point A to point B? This isn’t a situation that’s going to work it all out. We’re going to have to move much quicker.” The challenge also lies in corporate responsibility. In terms of technology, business leaders want to move at the same pace as others, so nobody is ahead of them, but they also should be responsible in not cutting the workforce.

As a member of the professional training industry, Matt Plass said “tech accelerates at a very fast pace and infrastructure doesn’t.” He believes that will be a major challenge moving forward, as will upholding company culture with remote employees and sometimes a virtual workplace.

At the same time, Plass, CEO of Interactive Services U.S. in New York City, predicts there will be “short-term disruption” with new technology, “but I think there will be normalization.”

He pointed out a shift in the learning industry 20 years ago.

“All training went online, and we put out a lot of bad e-learning. A lot of people did,” he said.

However, then the pendulum swung and the industry adapted to the internet. That experience, Plass said, “gives me a reason for hope.”