April 06, 2017
Intelligent automation: The rise of the machines
By: Russell Marsh

Intelligent Automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI)—call it what you want, there’s little doubt it’s going to have a huge effect on businesses and societies over the next few years. But not all of this is going to be positive.

Brave New World

Consider what’ll happen when computers become self-aware, as I believe they eventually will. What does that mean for how we view ourselves as humans? After all, consciousness has until now been a key definition of humanity. And what are the implications for religion and civil society? The emergence of Artificial Intelligence in the fullest sense challenges everything we know about ourselves and the world.

Becoming more human

Even on a more prosaic level there are challenges around Intelligent Automation to be addressed.

Today, people are happy to work with machines for simple transactions such as buying an air ticket, but what about more complex and emotional issues? How about defending you in court when your liberty or money is at stake for example? AI will only be able to live up to its potential if the programming enables machines to dynamically change how they interact with people over the course of a conversation; Something that is very difficult to code into today’s systems. That’s because we as humans rely on experience and context to help nuance a given situation. How long will it be before connected machines can use hive mentality to rapidly learn this type of strategy.

Disappearing professions

What happens then? With a human-style conversational interface, AI has the potential to take over a range of professions, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, nurses; any job, in fact, that can be represented by structured algorithms. Indeed, this is already happening; Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance in Japan made 34 office workers redundant this January, replacing them with AI. The big question is: How can society adapt to this inevitable change at speed? And Speed here is the critical point. Historically slower change allowed adaption to new social circumstances and the development of new opportunities. The speed of change now can be rapid and inter-generational which has a huge impact.

Government will have a role to play. Just as in the 19th Century the UK Government passed successive Factories Acts to mitigate the negative social consequences of the Industrial Revolution, so too will we need to legislate for Automated Intelligence. Today we’re regulating to resolve issues that have emerged around companies’ handling of consumers’ personal data. But what happens when humans are taken out of the picture? What happens if a fully automated system goes wrong? Who is to blame, the coder, the company or the algorithm its self if it has taught and written its own code?

Ethical business

Of course, these aren’t just questions for governments: Businesses need to be more ethical than ever. Ethics boards in businesses will become increasingly more important as the question shifts from ‘Can we do it’ to ‘Should we do it’. I think there’ll be a pivot point where businesses will need to think as much about the social implications of their actions as they do about generating wealth for investors. The two will actually go hand-in-hand, as a business’ ethical stance ties to its brand value and ability to win custom.

At this moment in time there are more questions than answers about the future of AI. There’s no doubt it will be a huge help to society, freeing us of mundane tasks, bringing unheralded efficiencies to business and enabling new business models and yes creating unimagined new jobs. But this isn’t a technology that should be rushed into, the speed with which is can change our global and social fabric means that businesses must consider all of the implications of automation and morally balance these before moving forward.

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