Global automation readiness. Who's prepared, who's in trouble?

A wave of automation across industries could inspire upheaval in work, employment, and politics ... at least for countries that are unprepared.

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In early 2017, President Barack Obama's top economic and science advisers wrote a report entitled, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy.

The report is a cleared-eyed collation of current data and predictions pertaining to the accelerating pace of adoption of automation and AI technologies starting from around 2010.

The full report is worth a look, but the top line findings are probably familiar. The analysts found that the day when robots will replace all workers is still remote, and any timeline for that happening is speculative at best. But the transition underway in the global economy due to automation technologies is undeniable and unstoppable.

"The major difference with the past is that today's automation technologies are highly intelligent and able to learn," explains Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria, anticipating and responding to a common argument that today's automation is in no way distinct from past instances of technological disruption.

The Obama White House report found that, globally, political leaders are ill-informed about and unprepared for the consequences of the upheaval to come.

That stark finding is borne out in a new global automation readiness index and white paper commissioned by automation firm ABB. (If it seems odd that a robotics company is sounding the alarm about automation, suffice to say there's a race underway among automation suppliers to soften the industry image.)

The Automation Readiness Index ranks nations on their preparedness for the spread of intelligent automation -- a loose phrase for machine-learning and AI-abetted automation that can be deployed rapidly into existing operations.

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"In assessing the existence of policy and strategy in the areas of innovation, education and the labour market, the study finds that little policy is in place today that specifically addresses the challenges of AI- and robotics-based automation," according to a white paper accompanying the index.

In fact, no country has provided a workable blueprint for dealing with coming labor, economic, and social services disruptions stemming from automation.

Some have done better than others, however.

Specifically, South Korea, Germany, and Singapore have invested in occupational retraining programs and have examined STEAM education initiatives and tax incentives and reforms with an eye toward meeting challenges posed by automation.

Not surprisingly, those countries top ABB's readiness index.

The US ranks ninth overall. The UK placed eighth and Australia placed tenth.

Other findings from the report are that middle-income countries are perhaps most exposed and will find it harder to adapt to automation than others.

"Shortcomings in basic skills education, among other weaknesses, will severely hamper countries in South and South-East Asia," according to the white paper, "as they attempt to capitalize on the opportunities offered by automation."

It's also clear that few countries have sought to respond to the impact of automation through education policy.

"Intelligent automation is expected to boost the importance of both education related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and of so-called soft skills, which allow workers to trade on their uniquely human capabilities."

Globally, little has been done to prepare future generations of workers through public education.

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