Intelligent automation: are you ready for your robot colleague?

Machines won't put us all out of a job. We need to learn to embrace AI at work to succeed, says Emma McGuigan.

by Emma McGuigan
Last Updated: 17 Jun 2016

From self-driving cars, to data driven programmes that solve complex problems in the worlds of business, healthcare and leisure, intelligent automation is already beginning to dramatically alter the workplace. Robots are becoming more common across different sectors, and their use is expanding from factories to more human-driven industries such as services.

Within the next few months, diners at a leading restaurant in Singapore will experience something novel in its service - dishes will no longer be delivered by human waiters, but instead be flown to their tables. The ‘flying waiters’ are actually autonomous drones. This is more than a gimmick. Once in service, restaurant employees will no longer have to rush dishes between the kitchen and the dining area – a process that is expected to boost staff productivity by 25%.

Similarly, a well-known online retailer is deploying robots in its warehouses to move goods about and carry out other simple tasks. An electronics manufacturer meanwhile is working on creating a washing machine robot that washes, dries, and folds your clothes.

These are high profile glimpses into the future of the workforce – one where humans and machines will increasingly work side by side. Robots have been working on factory production lines for decades but, as evident in these examples, they’re now starting to play a role in other parts of the economy.

That said, it’s important to understand that intelligent automation is not a quest to replace people in the workforce. Instead it is more about changing the way businesses operate by complementing and augmenting human capabilities, such as cognitive and social skills, with intelligent machines and software. Indeed, intelligent automation is one of five trends picked up in Accenture’s 2016 annual Technology Vision report.

Working in partnership

The partnering of humans with machines is set to drive higher productivity, improve scale, quality and business adaptability. Machines can help people become more efficient as they can take on tasks that are repetitive, mechanistic, dangerous or which require rational and very precise data analysis. Developments in artificial intelligence are another step in this journey bringing levels of precision, accuracy and sometimes even objectivity, which can sometimes be difficult for humans, especially when vast amounts of data are involved.  

With technological change comes a number of new opportunities. Workers will ultimately have the chance to build on or learn new skills, ensuring that businesses and the latest forms of technology they are harnessing continue to run smoothly.

Intelligent automation is already making inroads. For example, in the finance sector natural language processing is being deployed to root out fraud and to support compliance procedures. The police are starting to use computer vision for facial recognition. Many manufacturing plants are also moving towards an age of collaborative working alongside machinery. The introduction of robots that have multi-function grippers for example, means that machinery can autonomously handle unpacked and specially shaped foods or even scan products real-time as they travel down the production line to ensure uniformity.

Succeeding in a digital world

The 2016 Accenture Technology Vision report found that 82% of executives believe their organisations need to reinvent themselves before their business models are seriously challenged by competitors. Intelligent automation has emerged as a key enabler behind this drive for transformation.

Being able to not only succeed but thrive as a business in today’s digital world is a feat that will not be managed purely by absorbing increasing amounts of technology, or as some worry, replacing people with robots. Instead we have reached an age where businesses and enterprises must now focus on enabling people to achieve more with technology. For that reason it is crucial that workforces are fully onboard and engaged with a business’ digital transformation.

We may be living in an era with a technological focus but the most successful leaders will in fact be those who place their people first. Ultimately this means moving towards a different kind of workplace - one that ensures people can easily adapt to working alongside machines and artificial intelligence.

Emma McGuigan is managing director of Accenture’s technology group

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