Most people, these days, will have heard of some sort of automation – be it driverless cars, factory robots, robotic vacuum cleaners or digital “assistants” like Alexa, Siri or Google. Consumer automation is all around us, from those more visible examples to those people are less aware of, for e.g. those “Live Chat” options you see on many service or retail companies’ web sites advertising things like “speak to an advisor, now”.
More and more, “live chat” options are being powered by software rather than a human being. Advances in technologies such as Natural Language Processing and cognitive processing technologies mean that these “bots” are now able to understand your questions, distil your “intent” and either make a decision on providing an answer or, if necessary, ask further questions.
These technologies are becoming more and more sophisticated, to the point now where they are almost indistinguishable from humans in normal conversation. Many are even being developed to engage in basic small talk.
For all these consumer visible technologies, though, behind the scenes an even bigger revolution is taking place, one that has the potential to change businesses for ever. Automation in its various forms is transforming back/middle office and shared services functions in businesses across the world. At its basic, entry-level, Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, which is the use of software to automate repetitive, high-volume / low value, rules-based tasks, is having a huge impact on the services which these functions provide. RPA can have a dramatic impact on the shape of work done by these teams by greatly improving productivity and reducing attrition. In essence, giving people the opportunity to do the job they were hired to do rather spending too much time doing menial tasks – usually required due to the inadequacies of traditional IT systems.
Moving up the scale of automation complexity, Machine Learning, or the use of algorithms and pattern-matching to “learn” data and trends – think Tesco Clubcard or Amazon and all those “because you bought X you might like Y” recommendations – is enabling businesses to streamline operations and improve customer experiences by providing insights that have, up until now, required days, weeks or even months of analytical processing to achieve.
And finally, at the top-end of the scale “cognitive” or learning tools and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are slowly transitioning from pet projects to commercially applicable tools. Such “intelligent” systems are increasingly being used to make automated decisions at speeds much faster than would normally be achieved and new applications for these technologies are being identified every day.
So where does this leave all us mere mortals? There has been a lot of scare-mongering across the media and internet of the impact of this automated “revolution”, much of it focussed on the perception of job losses as a result of automation. However, we’ve seen this before – during the industrial revolution much was made of the impact on jobs, the taking over of the machines and the end of the world but, as is also the case now, the resilience of the human race was underestimated. Yes, there was impact on the nature of the work but people adapted. They changed jobs, they re-trained, they up-skilled, they sought alternative careers. In short, the “end” never came but the revolution did.
The same is true today. Automation WILL transform the ways business operate but it does not mean everyone will suddenly find themselves in the dole queue on Monday morning. As before, people will adapt. Most won’t actually lose their jobs and for the small numbers that may, they too will re-train, up-skill or change jobs or careers. It’s basic evolution. When your environment changes, you adapt or you die and the human race is very, very good at adapting.
If only Darwin had been able to see the future. The robots are coming – but it’s not a bad thing!