The classic science fiction mantra has for some time been that artificial intelligence (AI) is a threat and will eventually take over loads of people’s jobs. This has been lampooned, offshoring has taken over as the universal Big Bad…but robotic process automation (RPA) is a reality and it’s starting to impact sophisticated occupations.
The traditional view has been that RPA will take over the repetitive jobs that require yes/no answers or which are purely number crunching. Humans get bored with those tasks so errors creep in, and if you deploy a software or hardware robot to take over then an undesirable job is eliminated. The human can go and do something more creative.
Now compare and contrast this with the news on the BBC’s website that Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life is replacing 24 people with robots – and these are robots that can understand freeform text, images, voice, and they can learn on the job. That’s the next stage of robotics: AI, or artificial intelligence, starts to think like a human. This particular example is a stage on from AI and is based on cognitive computing, in which sophistication levels are very high indeed.
How serious is AI?
So we need to get past the idea that AI will replace only the dullards’ workload. In legal circles there is already talk of AI not only being able to crunch data but being able to make preliminary judgements in a more objective manner than a human ever could. There are also limitations; early talk of AI coming into the GP’s surgery has led to concerns over patients presenting with one ailment when actually they need to talk about something else entirely (someone might come in complaining of headaches when actually their problem is tension, which might in turn be related to abuse…an experienced human doctor can look for signs and rely to an extent on instinct, which is not available to artificial intelligence).
So it’s not going to replace everything, at least not overnight and possibly not in our lifetimes (although if you’d said video phones and the capacity to access any music at all from around the world would be pocket sized by 2017, that would have sounded unlikely only a couple of decades ago). But AI and cognitive computing are likely to have a considerable effect on the enterprise in the coming months and years; this in turn will have a major impact on the skills needed from the people operating and programming them – or the robots doing the same.