How AI will affect your sector

The robots are coming faster than you think, but will the impact be positive, asks Alan Middleton.

by Alan Middleton
Last Updated: 04 Aug 2016

Many business leaders recognise that developments in robotics and AI are coming and that they will bring significant changes for business and society. These developments are not happening slowly and are all around us.

Take my friend for example. When I called him recently, he was in his Tesla, driving up the A3, having a bowl of cereal. This shows how quickly technology is moving. But it is important to realise there is still a way to go – as the recent tragedy involving a US Tesla driver demonstrates.

In some sectors, these advances in technology are already changing the way we work. With some research suggesting that 20% of a CEO’s tasks could be automated using today’s technologies, those changes could get very personal for those leaders.

Manufacturing: meet your new co-worker

Even in industries where robots are commonly used, such as in manufacturing, there will be changes in how they are deployed and the range of tasks they can undertake. Advances in sensor and vision technology are creating new, lighter, easier-to-use and more intelligent machines that can work collaboratively with humans without endangering them.

Manufacturers are taking a close interest in these so-called ‘co-bots’ which could lead to significant cost savings – from better use of manpower and improved accuracy and efficiency.

BMW, for example, has invested in both augmenting and automating technologies. Its self-driving Smart Transport Robot traverses the logistics hall, and uses digital maps and sensors to identify and communicate critical situations.

Healthcare: an AI solution to the ageing population?

In other sectors, the impact of these developments is already apparent. In healthcare, the use of robotics in surgery is now relatively common – but this is only the start. MIT recently announced they have developed a microbot that can be swallowed in pill form that then performs operations from inside the body. 

IBM’s Watson computer is being used by oncologists to provide diagnosis and treatment plans for cancer patients. Then there is a whole range of opportunities to use robots and intelligent technology to meet the growing need for care in our ageing population.

Policing: Robocop?

Policing is another area where the potential of new technology is being actively explored. Drones could be deployed as first responders to an emergency or crime scene and enable the real time coordination of the services attending the incident.

Equally, new cyber and robotic developments are increasing police forces’ capability to detect and solve crime. This ranges from using AI to identify crime hotspots to analytic software that distils CCTV data to find missing people. There are also emerging applications that can predict criminals’ behaviour and make them easier to catch.

These developments could have a profound impact in the way policing is structured – enabling a shift away from the current regional police forces to a system organised around particular capabilities.

The law: saving time

Even in professional services, we are seeing a growing role for AI applications. In the legal sector, researchers and paralegals are increasingly being replaced by systems that can extract facts and conclusions from over a billion text documents a second. This has the potential to save lawyers around 30% of their time.

What is different about the latest solutions is that they have the capability to reason and make highly accurate judgements about cases. In an experiment carried out by the University of Liverpool, AI was used to analyse 33 of the UK’s most complex legal cases. In 32 of the cases, the computer came to the same conclusion as the judge. Did the judge get it wrong in the 33rd case?

Finance: trust me, I’m a robot

In the financial services sector, firms are expanding their use of AI – from algorithms and analytics in trading and the back office to solutions that can be used in interactions with customers. ‘FinGenius’ has a smart system that answers questions on a webchat and where the customer is unaware that a machine is answering their questions. Charles Schwab is introducing robo-advisers that generate and monitor a portfolio of exchange-traded funds for customers.

This kind of automated adviser is also appearing in other sectors. Most recently, Enfield Council announced they were implementing Amelia, a robotic employee that can analyse natural language, understand context and resolve problems. It will be used to direct residents to particular services and manage transactions such as applications for permits and licences.

The downside

It is perhaps these automated call operators that present the most immediate and visible risk to jobs, with a particular threat to those who work in call centres. One million people are currently employed in UK call centres, and many of these are based in economically deprived areas where previous generations suffered from the effects of heavy industry closing down.

If there are widespread job losses from call centres, there could be a real social challenge in dealing with high levels of unemployment among a new generation of workers.

However, determining which people and sectors are going to be most affected by new technology is complex. Recent research suggests that more than 37% of British jobs could be automated but what determines whether a job can be automated is not the skill level of the worker, but how much of the work involves routine tasks.

Lawyers, doctors and accountants could all see large parts of their jobs carried out by machines while personal assistants, care workers and gardeners will be unaffected.

The upside

While the threat of job losses for some workers is undoubtedly real, it should not overshadow the potential positive benefits that AI can bring to the workplace. The demand for robots has the potential to add £352 billion to the UK economy over the next 15 years.

There are real opportunities to reduce waste, increase personalisation and enable more efficient operations. This may also generate new jobs. Adidas is just one example of a manufacturer that is planning to bring some of its production back from China to Germany because its highly automated factory in Bavaria, operated largely by robots, is so efficient, flexible and close to the customer.

Robots are also enabling new levels of customisation. Nike are using robots to manufacture uppers for their trainers that are designed for your individual foot – bringing a level of personalisation, material efficiency and flexibility that is impossible to match in traditional mass production.

Today’s leaders can take the lead from younger generations who are much more relaxed about these developments. We have seen this clearly in the enthusiasm and creativity shown by the schoolchildren who entered PA’s Raspberry Pi competition and came up with hugely impressive ideas for robots. These ranged from devices to help with recycling to complex solutions that can be controlled though eye movements.

So, some jobs will disappear and others will be redefined and, in many sectors, the tasks workers are paid to do will look very different. Businesses need to start thinking now about how their workplaces will change and how they should prepare for this.

Equally, policymakers need to think about the skills future workers will need and how the education system can provide those skills. They will also need to develop policy to support communities and individuals through transitions to new kinds of work.

This task is urgent. Automation is coming quickly and government and business leaders must understand what is happening and start to act now.

Alan Middleton is Chief Executive Officer at PA Consulting Group

Image credit: Vanillase/Wikipedia

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