The Singularity and the CIO: Discuss

terminatorSci-fi writers have been warning us about the coming of the singularity for a decade now. And while we’re some years away from having to contemplate such a future, AI, machine learning, big data and other technologies are developing at a pace which is already beginning to impact the global workforce.

I chatted to some experts on the subject for an upcoming feature to find out whether CIOs should be terrified or enthused by the prospect of robot workers.

The truth is that they’re already here, in many heavy industries like tech manufacturing. In May this year a local government official in the Chinese district of Kunshan announced contract manufacturing giant Foxconn was reducing “employee strength” from 110,000 to 50,000 workers, because of investments in robots. But what about when they spread into other industries? As far back as 2014, Gartner was predicting that as many as one in three jobs will be “converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025” as software advances mean technology systems begin to replace cognitive tasks as well as factory jobs.

Meanwhile, a report from the Bank of England last year estimated up to 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation in the future. And a Deloitte/Oxford University study in January claimed 35% of today’s jobs have a “high chance” of being automated in the next 10-20 years.

For IHS Markit analyst, Wilmer Zhou, the coming robot hordes represent both a challenge and an opportunity to employers. Aside from manufacturing, he picked out several industries where jobs are potentially most at risk, including agriculture, logistics, and specialist domestic care. Most surprising for me was healthcare.

“It’s one of the industries with relatively high robot deployment such as surgical robots,” he told me via email. “IHS forecasts that robots in the medical industry will be one of the fastest growth sectors, with the decreasing of the average sale price of surgical robots and expansion of medical operation tasks.”

For CIOs looking to maximise the potential offered by these new automated workers, it will be important to create trust in the bots, argued Forrester principal analyst, Craig Le Clair.

“Cognitive systems can end up learning undesirable behavior from a weak training script or a bad customer experience. So build ‘airbags’ into the process,” he told me.

“Assess the level of trust required for your customer to release their financial details. Get compliance and legal colleagues on board as early as possible. Cognitive applications affect compliance in positive and negative ways. Be prepared to leverage the machines ability to explain recommendations in an understandable manner.”

Also important is to foster human and machine collaboration wherever possible, to reduce friction between the two.

“Rethink talent acquisition and your workplace vision,” Le Clair explained. “Some 78% of automation technologists foresee a mismatch of skill sets between today’s workers and the human/machine future, with the largest gaps in data, analytics, and cognitive skills.”

The bottom line is that robots and AI are here to stay. Whether they’ll have a net positive or negative impact on the workplace is up for discussion, but it may well hinge on how many so-called ‘higher value’ roles there are for humans to move into once they’ve been displaced by silicon.

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