The pandemic’s profound effects on the way we all live and work has seen several nascent trends accelerate across society and the economy. 

I’m not just thinking of the shift to flexible working, which although very tangible for us all, especially those of us in Europe entering a second lockdown, is actually pretty prosaic in comparison to some more fundamental changes. 

We will look back at 2020 as the year that the adoption of robotics, AI and the drive to digitisation truly took hold. It has been particularly prevalent in life sciences and it will shape the sector’s direction of travel from hereon in. 

The opportunities and threats posed by the so-called ‘rise of the robots’ has already been hotly debated by academics, policy wonks and countless others because it will touch every area of the economy in time, from the self-checkout to the driverless car. 

And not just in the UK of course. The World Economic Forum’s recently published ‘Future of Jobs Report’, noting how the pandemic has turbo-charged the pace of technological adoption, is creating a ‘double disruption’ for workers; first from the economic downturn and then the replacement of human jobs by technology. 

As it stands, the WEF says the destruction of jobs is accelerating at a greater pace than they are being replaced by the new jobs created by a rapidly digitising global economy. 

We need a proactive response to address the skills challenge this represents. This must stretch from schools to current workers who find themselves disenfranchised – and, no, I’m not talking about badly conceived posters telling ballet dancers to retrain as coders… 

I am optimistic that the creative forces unleashed by the advancing adoption of AI and robotics is greater than the destructive ones. Humans will always be the critical factor and innovation, when commercially successful, will always create jobs and economic growth. 

The greater challenge I see in science is the translation of a brilliant idea, that spark of human ingenuity, into a viable enterprise. Unlocking this is the key to delivering the creation of new roles to replace the old and it is where technology can play an outsized role. 

A recent and brilliant example shows how AI and digitisation together are helping to not only rapidly compress the discovery timeline but also enabling ideas to be scaled-up and adopted at pace.

A new algorithm developed by a team at MIT has a 98.5% success rate in detecting a ‘Covid-cough’ that is inaudible to human ears. This could help asymptomatic or people with very mild symptoms, as well as anyone else, find out whether their mild cough is in fact coronavirus. 

The beauty of the MIT innovation is that it can be developed as a smartphone app meaning it has the potential to be adopted by hundreds of millions of people, rapidly. Here, digitisation is helping accelerate an AI-driven innovation into a market-ready tool. 

This strikes me as a winning formula for the translation of academic study – the bedrock of all scientific discovery – into commercially viable outcomes: use robotics and AI to power discovery and digitisation to create a business platform. 

If we can apply this consistently, alongside providing the support services, talent capital and places enterprising scientists need to thrive, then we can match the UK’s ambition to create more global leaders in the future.