Intelligent machines – fresh legs in the workplace….

Tuesday 25th October 2016

In this issue of Money Truths….

  • Robocop – coming soon to a street near you….
  • Dr. Robot will see you now….
  • Brave new world or dystopian nightmare?
  • Customer service – minus the human element….
  • The human price….

Robocop – coming soon to a street near you….

A police bomb disposal robot has already been used to kill a gunman in America. It happened in July in Dallas.

The robot doesn’t look like Tom Cruise. It didn’t deliver any of the pithy lines or slick moves that Hollywood screenwriters might dream up. But all that is not far down the road.

The future is one where armed robots carry badges, police the streets and keep the peace….

Military research is pushing the price of robotics down. And in the United States, the Pentagon has a policy of peddling equipment originally intended for the battlefield to domestic law enforcement agencies.

Robots don’t get sick, they don’t get fat on doughnuts, they don’t get tired and they don’t need pensions. It is only a matter of time before they are seen as a more efficient, and cheaper policing option than humans. And when it happens in the US, it won’t be long before it happens here.

I suspect we’ll see robots patrolling supermarkets and big shopping centers before they are let loose on the streets. I’d imagine robots can be programmed to identify shoplifters more effectively than human security guards.

And we might also see them in event-management roles – gate-keeping, stewarding, crowd control and ejection of undesirables.

Robots won’t replace human police officers immediately. They will be introduced gradually – in situations where they work alongside human officers. At football grounds, for instance.

I’m no expert on these matters, but I’d guess that half-a-dozen Robocops would be designed and equipped to handle instances of football-related violence more effectively and more robustly than your average OAP steward….

Dr. Robot will see you now….

Surgery is another field set to undergo robotic transformation….

In developed countries robots are already used for low-invasive procedures. And this is a trend that is sure to harden.

In Britain experiments have taken place using ‘smart-tissue-autonomous-robots’. One of these machines was recently used to stitch the intestines of piglets that had undergone surgery.

It took the robotic arm five times as long as a human surgeon to get the job done. But it performed with more precision – and the time-standard will improve as more experiments are conducted and the technology is refined.

We are still a long way from fully-autonomous robots conducting complex surgery on humans – and it may never happen at all. Robots might end up doing the bulk of surgical grunt work – but only under the stewardship and observation of humans.

It remains to be seen. But robots will be increasingly involved in surgical procedures. That much seems certain.

You can see the possibilities? Medical professionals downloading software, loading it onto robots and using them to conduct operations more quickly, more cheaply and more precisely than even the most skillful and experienced human surgeon could manage.

And the robots could work round the clock – without putting lives at risk. What would that do for waiting times?

Brave new world or dystopian nightmare?

Intelligent machines are making their presence felt in every area of life.

Drones are increasingly used to gather intelligence and to deliver fire-power in theatres of conflict….

Self-flying airliners are navigating the skies above. By 2020 Fedex hope to have a pilot center from which four pilots will fly the entire FedEx fleet (amounting to hundreds of planes] across America. Intelligent ships are taking to the seas….

Agriculturally-oriented ‘intelligent’ machines are already at work in the crop fields – using cameras and sensors to precisely plough fields, plant seedlings and deliver sufficient water (and no more) to keep plants hydrated and moist.

They can identify and remove weeds, add fertilizer and determine exactly when to harvest. Such machines are increasing productivity, driving efficiency and improving yields.

Content producers like Associated Press are using automation to generate reports on sporting events…. No human hand required….

Law firms are automating the discovery process in large lawsuits – using software systems to comb through millions of documents and identify those that need to be turned over to the opposition’s legal team…. This used to be the preserve of junior legal executives….

It is hard to pinpoint any industry that doesn’t or won’t represent an opportunity for artificial or automated intelligence to do it quicker, better or cheaper than humans can….

Will this future represent a brave new world in which man harnesses machine to improve lives and produce better outcomes across the board?

Or will it be some kind of dystopian nightmare where man finds himself supplanted and overtaken by the very machines he has created?

Who can know? I guess we’ll find out when we get there – and we won’t get there overnight.

The process is happening incrementally. But, make no mistake, the process is underway. And it won’t be turning back. Intelligent machines, robots and automated systems are already an unavoidable part of daily life whether you realise it or not….

Customer service minus the human element….

Chat bots or ‘virtual assistants’ are gradually replacing customer service helplines. Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, expects chat bots to completely replace human customer service assistants within the next decade.

In the future when you want to arrange to send your wife some flowers or you want to get a Chinese meal delivered to your door, the likelihood is you will text a chat bot from your phone – or speak to it directly – to get the job done.

It might not be a bad thing. People worry that machines and apps might not be very good at performing customer service functions – that they lack some human instinct that is core to the customer service experience.

But let’s face facts. Human beings often lack those very same customer service instincts. And what machines and software-driven bots might lack in terms of empathy or warmth, they more than make up for in terms of efficiency and the lengths they can go to serve you effectively.

For example, Springbot in Facebook Messenger is a shopping concierge bot that tailors shopping options to your price range.

Tell it you’re looking for a black jacket for under £100 and it will text you options that fit the brief. It won’t bother you with options outside your price range – and it will remember your tastes for next time. When was the last time you got that kind of service from a surly High Street store assistant who resents you eating into her valuable Snapchat time?

And it won’t just be customer service that machines change. They’ll be getting their hands dirty too.

McDonalds are currently developing McRobots to replace ‘inefficient’ human staff. The robots won’t just be taking orders at the counter or at the drive-thru window. They’ll be flipping the burgers and crisping the French-fries to perfection.

Amazon and Google are developing delivery drones – so they can fly your packages to you on the day you order. No more waiting for the van driver who doesn’t speak a word of English to show up.

And it won’t be long before self-driving ground-based delivery robots are a common sight on British streets – delivering groceries, consumer durables, packages and mail.

Driverless taxis are being hailed as the next big thing in transport. Ford expect to have a self-driving car – with no steering wheel or pedals – on the roads by 2021. You’ll be able to hail these vehicles via a smart-phone app. The days when you ask the cabbie whether or not he’s busy and what time he gets off will be gone.

Down on the farm, robots are already displacing human beings. The University of Lincoln has developed a broccoli-harvesting robot that can do the work of half-a-dozen farm laborers. It never takes a tea-break, it never has a sick day and you’ll never hear it complaining about its rights or bemoaning breaches of health and safety regulations.

The human price….

On-going developments in the fields of Robotics, intelligent automation and AI make for good stories at the breakfast table, because they give us a tantalizing glimpse of a future that would have seemed like something out of a science fiction novel not so very long ago….

There will be big benefits for sure. For business and for the consumer. But there will also be a price to pay. A human price.

Many of the jobs we currently take for granted – the jobs we expect to be doing to put bread on the table – will no longer be available. The robots will be performing those roles and taking care of those functions instead.

Right now many people are in denial. Particularly those people most likely to be adversely affected by the rise of the robots – the least educated people in society.

A recent survey conducted by salary benchmarking site Emolument found that respondents with no university education were least likely to think that technology is a risk to their job.

Just 18% of people with no degree answered yes when asked: ‘Is technology putting your job at risk?

Those people – people you might expect to be working customer service roles, flipping burgers, driving taxis, delivering packages or harvesting crops – are sleep-walking to disaster. They will be among the first to be disenfranchised from the workforce – permanently replaced by robots.

It is hard to know which jobs will be safe from the robots in the years ahead. Maybe no job or career is entirely secure over the long-term. If policemen, pilots, surgeons, journalists and lawyers are being replaced by machines (and I could have highlighted many other professions under threat), maybe we should all be worried.

But it will pay to start thinking about it now – particularly for younger members of the workforce or those set to enter the fray in the years ahead.

Acknowledging now the realities likely to be faced in the future – and bearing them in mind – could help determine what kind of working life they enjoy; one where their skills are in demand or one where long periods of redundancy are the norm.

I’ve got some thoughts on the kinds of skills and roles that might continue to pay in a world staffed by intelligent machines. I’ll share those thoughts with you next time.

That’s how it looks from here….

I’ll be back with more next Tuesday.

Best wishes,

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson

Money Truths