x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Abu Dhabi conference asks companies to invest more in innovators

UAE companies were told at the second day of the ECSSR Annual Conference that investing in new ideas is crucial if the country wants to benefit from technological innovation.

ABU DHABI // Companies in the UAE need to take more risks and invest in innovative ideas and technologies, was the main message at a conference that concluded yesterday.

The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research’s annual conference called on companies to increase their support for innovators.

“The problem with ideas is that many are worth nothing, but very few are worth a fortune,” said Prof Alfonso Gambardella from Bocconi University in Italy.

“We do not know which are the winning ideas, so we have to try many before we find the ones that will be successful,” he said.

Prof Gambardella said that large companies must invest in new ideas when it comes to technology, as often the person with the blueprint of an innovative idea cannot finance the project themselves.

“In the division of labour there is room for investors, producers of ideas and the buyers of ideas. The division of labour is not something that enables some companies and not others, because it is a division it enables many parties to do many things.”

Along with the optimism for commerce, the conference also offered a warning.

Martin Ford, president of Acculant Technology in the US, said that as technology gets smarter, machines could soon replicate the repeatable tasks of many human workers.

“If you look at the workers out there, millions of them, for the most part, are doing jobs that on some level are routine and predictable,” he said.

“As more is captured in data, these types of tasks will be subject to machine learning and in essence they will figure out how to do these predictable tasks. Enormous amounts of data are gathered and as this increases it will become a rich data set, and this puts a lot of jobs at risk.”

Mr Ford highlighted the example of General Motors, which at the peak of its production, in 1979, employed about 840,000 workers, with earnings of US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn).

He compared this with Google, which in 2012 employed just 38,000 people and had earnings of $14bn, using less than 5 per cent of the staff.

Another keynote speaker was Prof James Fleming, from Columbia University in the US.

He offered his thoughts on using technology in harmony with the planet’s ecosystem, and ensuring sustainability.

“We need to move our technology away from conflict,” he said.

“We need to, in a way, not predict specifics, but find our comfort level of living with technology and with the planet. We will never stop living with technology but we also cannot live without the ecosystem around us.”

Other topics covered on the final day of the event in Abu Dhabi included the challenges presented to governments as the threat of cyber attacks increases.

Prof Lisa Nelson, from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, highlighted the continuing problem for politicians attempting to tackle threats from individuals or foreign governments.

Prof Nayef Al Rodhan, from the University of Oxford in the UK, explored the changing face of technology and its relationship with ethics and biology.

He offered insights into how technology was increasingly being used to enhance us physiologically, and that in the future, boundaries would be tested when it came to ethics and governance.

ksinclair@thenational.ae