~ Archive for Business ~

The future of work: Fusion of humans, robots and artificial intelligence

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The retail industry has certainly been through a lot throughout the entire Covid-19 saga and its still undergoing a lot of staffing challenges. Some workers refused to go to work because they are concerned about being infected by the Covid-19 virus. On top of this, the number of takeaways has increased dramatically, resulting in massive work load.

The industry has already been suffering from staffing shortages even before the Covid-10 pandemic and this pandemic only exacerbated the problem. So, some companies have decided to develop retail stores that are entirely powered and controlled by IT technology, such as the ones in Singapore. They call it AI-stores and the operations were designed to be cashier-less and checkout-free.

AI-Powered Retail Therapy

While most of the operations are powered by IT capabilities, humans are still required to replenish dwindling stocks and there is also limitations to how the IT capabilities could react to unforeseen circumstances.

Recently, Japan released their prototype robot that can be controlled remotely to replenish drinks stock. I think that this could augment the AI stores. This robot has a wider range of motions as compared to the stores’ mechanised fixtures. Workers who are concerned about being infected by Covid-19 can simply choose to work from home with this robot.

Plus, those who are differently-abled can now work with this robot to perform tasks that they could not perform previously. Managing the shift-work is also a major issue among management. With this robot, the manager can schedule tasks among different employees without concern about travelling time.

In a way, it is also much safer for the workers because they are not physically exposed to any potential high-risk situations (robbery?) as well.

The companies that worked on this robot are pushing for the next frontier in that they are coding more scenarios and improving hardware capabilities. This so that the robot can handle different types of products other than drinks.

While the prototype is just meant for the retail sector, the potential to extend this capability to other sectors is certainly possible. Funnily, the prototype initially comprised the robotic arm, carrier box and the motorised wheel system, and the “head” was later added on to make it more human-like to the customers.

This idea could also be extended to sectors like construction, manufacturing, maintenance work, healthcare and many other sectors as well. A company can simply set up this system in any parts of the world and access workers from anywhere. There is improved efficiencies in manpower allocation and cost-saving from having to deal less with visa applications (if the deployment is cross-border).

A lot of people focus on the idea that AI is going to exclude humans in the future of work but there are other possibilities as well.  I think maybe we should stop dwelling on how this technology could be weaponised. Instead of that, why not focus our attention on a positive future and manifest that possibility. This is a clear example of how humans, AI and robotics can come together in the future of work.

I am looking forward to the prototypes’ update. They will be announcing it soon. With this, we will be able to open up a new working environment to differently-abled people and embrace whoever was excluded from proper employment.

Imagine receiving a welcome-to-work mail package comprising the remote-controllers and googles and that is it, you can begin to start work in your room when your shift has begun!

 

Echo chamber risk and the role of middle management in information flow

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I kept encountering the phrase “Echo Chamber” this week and even though I know what it stands for, I can’t help but to look up its meaning on Wikipedia. On Wiki, it defined Echo Chamber as,

Echo chamber (media) An echo chamber is “an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.” In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal …

 

Just think about it, recent history is replete with examples of leaders being entrenched in their own interpretations of truth, particularly when circumstances turn against the company. Instead of responding logically to the cautionary signals all around them, they dig further into their echo chamber, listening to the deputies that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

One of the most dangerous aspects of echo chambers is that they lead to a lack of creative ideas, similar viewpoints, and identical concepts. On an organisational level, I seriously think that this can limit our chances for progress and stifle constructive discussion.

Now, with the vast quantity of information available on the internet, I don’t really think that it is difficult to obtain “evidences” that support a committee’s viewpoint. The challenge, and very useful one indeed, is to discover dissident ideas and views that do not correspond to your own point of view and build these insights into our strategy, and this can only be achieved by deliberately seeking out people and groups that are not so similar and also maybe from other industries.

The risk is, deputies or middle management might tend to form committees that comprise people who more or less mirror the views of the head honcho. Importantly, these middle managers represent the company’s culture by encouraging and implementing appropriate beliefs and behavioral patterns throughout the organisation.

Fundamentally, the flow of information in an organisation is also controlled by middle management. They are privy to crucial information and gossips (important too!) and it is up to them to communicate (or not) the critical information to the appropriate supervisors or departments. Failure to surface critical information can sometimes lead to the fall of the leader or worse, the organisation.

Perhaps leaders could also consider to be more purposeful in surrounding themselves with advisers who are competent, logical, confident, and genuine in order to counteract this Echo Chamber risk, otherwise they risk slipping into this fatal communication gap.

One good example would be Nokia; its fall from being the world’s finest mobile phone firm to losing everything by 2013 has become a case study that professors and students in business management classes have examined. Not only did they formed an echo chamber, they also fostered a very toxic work environment. According to a study (Vuori & Huy 2016) with 76 Nokia top and middle managers, engineers and external experts, they discovered the following about Nokia:

  • Nokia was plagued by organisational anxiety at the time;
  • The anxiety in the organisation was rooted in a culture of toxic working environment filled with terrified middle managers;
  • Top executives frequently intimidated middle managers by accusing them of not being ambitious enough to achieve their objectives;
  • Middle management was afraid to reveal the truth for fear of getting sacked;
  • Middle management lied to top management because they believed stating the truth was pointless; top management lacked technical knowledge, which affected how they could judge technology limits during KPI formulation; in comparison, Apple’s top management were all engineers;
  • Middle management were hesitant to openly admit that Symbian, Nokia’s operating system, was inferior;
  • Top executives were terrified of losing investors, suppliers, and consumers if they admitted to Apple’s technological superiority;
  • They were aware that developing a superior operating system capable of competing with Apple’s iOS would take several years; and
  • Rather than committing resources to long-term aims such as building a new operating system, Nokia management chose to create new phone handsets to meet short-term market demands.

Nokia’s demise was precipitated by a series of poor decisions, yet none of the company’s errors were unavoidable. I think that there are several lessons to be drawn from the demise of this technological behemoth.

Reference(s):

Vuori, T. O., & Huy, Q. N. (2016). Distributed Attention and Shared Emotions in the Innovation Process: How Nokia Lost the Smartphone Battle. Administrative Science Quarterly61(1), 9–51.

 

Turning a crisis into an opportunity: Crippling effects of increased level of carbon dioxide and global temperature on hydroelectric power plants in tropics and subtropics regions

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Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

 

Written by Zeng Han Jun

A recent survey showed that there is a slight shift in people’s interest in favor of renewable energy. According to this survey, governments should consider exerting more influence in raising environmental consciousness and bridging the gap between people’s desires and realistic energy alternatives (Zhang, Abbas,Iqbal, 2021). Popular renewable and clean energy options include hydroelectric, geothermal energy, wind energy, solar energy, etc.

 

By bridging the gap between people’s desires and realistic energy alternatives, the government could realise people’s expectation and also reduce the burden on our environmental ecosystem, but it is also important to note that operationalising, has its fair share of challenges. For example, in the United States, there is general consensus among some people that harnessing wind energy could be one of the solutions to alleviating the energy challenge. Among those who agreed, some have the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) mindset and do not want any of those power plants near their homes. 

 

Some cited personal health issues and environmental degradation, while others say that the construction will destroy the view from their houses and devalue the properties in the vicinity. All these concerns stand in the way of implementation and of course, I have to agree that these are indeed issues that should be addressed accordingly and dealt with properly. 

 

In the tropics and subtropics regions, we could be witnessing other increasingly challenging issues stemming from global temperature and carbon dioxide increase, its effect on the natural ecosystem and this might possibly disrupt the operations of hydroelectric power plants.  

 

Let me explain why.

 

As the global temperature and carbon dioxide increase, we might discover that it becomes more difficult to maintain biological control on the proliferation of aquatic weeds in many parts of the world (Baso, Coetzee, Ripley, Hill, 2021), more so in the tropics and subtropics. The tropics and subtropics region are located in parts of the world in which the sun is directly overhead at least one day of the year and is found within a band on either side of the equator from 23.5°N, and 23.5°S. These aquatic weeds can grow rapidly to cover the entire surface of lakes and rivers, some even setting deep roots and form strong lateral connections to each other as well. 

 

As mentioned earlier, these growing aquatic weeds might cause operational difficulties for hydroelectric power plants. It could lead to reduced throughput and eventually cause severe blockages. Hydroelectric power plants that are situated in Southeast Asia, would be at the greatest risk. Southeast Asian governments must anticipate these types of obvious problems and develop an integrated and multi-phased roadmap to tackle the upcoming challenges.  

 

So, do not naively assume all types of green are good. Some types of green when left unchecked, can contribute to severe environmental and commercial consequences. 

 

One of the problematic aquatic weeds is the water hyacinth species. This species grows very fast and some even flower under the right conditions. Many in fact think that it is very beautiful.  It  has a rapid growth rate in warm temperatures (Mitan, 2019) and can potentially cover the entire lake if left unchecked. This prevents sunlight from reaching the bottom of the lake and disrupts the lake ecosystem. In other parts of the world, local communities have tried to use pesticides to control aquatic weeds. Some tried to introduce insects such as weevils to feed on the water hyacinth to slow its growth but such methods also have its consequences.

 

Apart from meeting the issue head on, central and local governments could also try to mitigate the risk by transforming/ retrofitting the affected hydroelectric power plants to harness other forms of renewable and clean energy. It is more cost-effective to install alternative renewable energy devices on infrastructures that can already receive, store, transform and transmit electricity. 

 

Also, it is worthwhile to explore tapping on the creativity of the private sector to transform the issue into revenue-generating ideas such as collecting aquatic weeds, processing it and mixing the by-products with polymers to create fabrics that can be used for weaving garments thereby paving way for sustainable fashion. Or, the aquatic weeds could be harvested, processed and strengthened with chemicals to produce furniture thereby giving birth to sustainable furniture. Additionally, the private sector could also explore processing the aquatic weeds into edible food for humans, animal feeds and fertilisers, and export the final products to other countries (Oa, & Cf, 2015).

 

By including additional later stages such as breaking down these final products with pyro technology then harvesting the by-product as fertilisers (Ramirez, Pérez, Flórez, Acelas, 2021), the government, with the help of the private sector would be able to close the loop and further develop the entire idea into a circular economy. This can help to create new jobs, improve the economy and certainly goes well with the media.  

 

There are many ways to tackle the issue. The main enabler is to have a properly designed, integrated and multi-phased roadmap to guide the entire transition. 

 

References

Baso, N. C., Coetzee, J. A., Ripley, B. S., & Hill, M. P. (2021). The effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration on the biological control of invasive aquatic weeds. Aquatic Botany, 170, 103348. doi:10.1016/j.aquabot.2020.103348

Oa, S., & Cf, O. (2015). Utilization of Treated Duckweed Meal (Lemna pausicostata) as Plant Protein Supplement in African Mud Catfish (Clarias gariepinus) Juvenile Diets. Fisheries and Aquaculture Journal, 06(04). doi:10.4172/2150-3508.1000141

Ramirez, A., Pérez, S., Flórez, E., & Acelas, N. (2021). Utilization of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) rejects as phosphate-rich fertilizer. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering, 9(1), 104776. doi:10.1016/j.jece.2020.104776

Zhang, Y., Abbas, M., & Iqbal, W. (2021). Perceptions of GHG emissions and renewable energy sources in Europe, Australia and the USA. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. doi:10.1007/s11356-021-15935-7

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