Chatbots, cobots, AI and robotics – these are all facets of automation that may impact your business and sooner than you think. Our latest WBI Dinner delved deeper into this topic.

As a growing phenomenon, an evening of discussion and Q&A with experts on the subject ‘rise of the bots’ couldn’t be more timely. Businesses are using AI and automation to solve problems and create new products and services, but how can others prepare to do the same?

Phil Westcott, Co-Managing Director at Filament, based at Cargo Works chaired the evening’s discussions. Phil is a former Director at IBM, and a specialist in applied Artificial Intelligence and business transformation. Filament is a venture-backed expert services and tooling firm specialising in applied Machine Learning, NLP and Computer Vision. The team of 25 AI specialists is drawn from IBM Watson, Capgemini, top academia and a leading London digital agency. Since mid-2016, Filament has delivered expert AI services for the likes of Deutsche Telekom, Google, HSBC and American Express.

Due to the overwhelming amount of content surrounding the topic, the panel discussions were split into two. The first tackled the use of AI in healthcare and justice and its impact on jobs and the way we work. The second explored how chatbots and cobots are built and developed to perform tasks and can be used in a creative way – even with the possibility of representing emotions.

Watch the video of our first panel below.

Robots and the workplace

We’ve all seen the headlines ‘robots could take our jobs’, and perhaps even worried about our own place in the workforce as more tech is developed to perform the tasks we complete as part of our job. Our two experts come from varied backgrounds, but both have experienced the rise of tech and AI in the workplace, and neither are convinced by the sensationalist news. They explained the benefits of advancing tech and how it can have a positive impact in how we all work.

Benedict Dellot works for The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) – and is Associate Director in the RSA’s Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing team.

An experienced policy researcher and writer with an interest in technology, jobs and the new economy, most recently, he has explored the rise of new working patterns like self-employment, the impact of robotics on the availability and quality of jobs, and the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

“Do the headlines actually live up to reality?” he asked. “I’ve conducted plenty of research and interviews with employers and there’s a lot of hype, but the reality is far less scary.” Ben went on to use the example of self-service machines: “we already have self-service for tasks in places like supermarkets, but we still need staff to do the things that automation cannot do – such as provide customer service. So the AI is only performing part of a role. It’s the automation of tasks not jobs.”

Phil Westcott, Benedict Dellot and Dr Matthew FenechThe Leather Market

Matt referenced the AlphaGo Zero to help illustrate Ben’s point. The machine learnt how to play a complex game, simply by playing against itself, in 4 hours – but it can’t make a cup of tea. “The things that we see as not requiring intelligence are actually much harder to automate,” Matt reminded us.

Another example Ben cited is when a robotic system is used to help care workers. “It does the heavy lifting to take away the physical aspect of the role and give the carers more time to spend actually looking after their patients,” he explains.

Ben also believes that it’s important to think about the timescale with introducing AI “It’s really important to be clear about how long it might take for any job numbers to be impacted,” he warned. Ben encouraged businesses to prepare by making sure staff are considering training people to be able to work with and alongside the new advances. He revealed that in the UK we aren’t far enough ahead: “Where should we be trying to upskill people? In the UK we are actually too slow to adopt this technology. Only 14% of businesses are investing in it. Most say it is too costly, too much tech too fast or they are completely unaware.”

Ben urged people to stay positive about the rise in automation because it will actual produce more benefits rather than simply replace entire job roles. It will free up time and make certain tasks and processes far quicker, leaving humans to get on with the work that is important and that robots cannot do. “We need to automate, but we need to do it on our own terms,” said Ben.

Joining Ben and Phil on this discussion was Dr Matthew Fenech. Matt is an Artificial Intelligence Researcher and Advocacy Coordinator at Future Advocacy, a think tank and consultancy working on the greatest challenges humanity faces in the 21st Century. The work focuses on stretching the decision-making horizons of government, business, and citizens to allow global problems to be solved.

Matt worked as an NHS hospital doctor and clinical academic for 10 years. His experience on the front line of the NHS helped him understand the value of large-scale, ambitious advocacy projects in improving societal well-being. He now works on Future Advocacy's artificial intelligence (AI) project. His aim is to better understand the impact AI will have on the workplace, social cohesion, health and our sense of self.

Matt describes his current job as “advocating for policies that maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks of AI. My organisation occupies the space between research and “what are we going to do about what we discover” - it’s government facing.”

“When it comes to the future of work, AI could be very disruptive in sectors as different as manufacturing and healthcare – but that can be a good thing,” he says. Matt has travelled extensively in his various roles and looked at the impact of AI in developing countries as well as political constituencies here in England. He spoke to politicians about the specific impact AI would have for their area to develop tailored policies.

Matt agrees with Ben that there are many positive impacts to the rise of AI – “but we need education on all of it,” he thinks. He pointed out that rather than worrying about losing jobs, we should be considering the roles automation will create. “10 to 15 years ago did we need a job role entitled ‘social media manager’?” he asks. “New jobs are being created, so we need to understand who in the workforce is going to be affected and how.”

AI and ethics

Both Matt and Ben discussed how ethics would play a part in all of this technological advancement. Ben talked about the Deepmind project which is the world leader in artificial intelligence research and its application for positive impact. Companies like Deepmind excite him because Ben believes we should always be exploring the ethical implications of AI. “What will it do to households and how will it affect authentic human relationships? What about privacy?” he asks.

Most of us have already experienced targeted advertising based on our browsing history, but “when is marketing going too far? When is it too pushy to get you to buy things? It’s the same issue with politicians, how could they use AI to target voters? When does it become problematic to use AI for individualised profiling?” Asks Ben. These are all important questions to consider as we move forward.

One way to tackle these emerging issues that is already being explored is increased public engagement. Ben believes using solutions such as a series of citizen juries to find out what the public think are acceptable uses of AI is a good step to take. Matt added that the more diverse these audiences are, the better. “We need to have a more sophisticated conversation, but not necessarily just an academic one,” Matt said.

Even with the ethical considerations, Matt believes you could use robotics to improve social care, “which can seem odd because it should be delivered by humans. But we have hundreds of thousands of gaps in the jobs in care –  and AI can plug that gap.” From an ethical perspective Matt suggests that AI could tackle logistics such as scheduling in health care, “this would be less ethically difficult and would free up more time, but there’s not much progress here either.”

AI can also support biomedical research, which is creating vast data sets, but now the greater task is that we need to understand it “and AI can help,” says Matt. “There are also clinical applications – image analysis has really come forward – scans and X-rays can be analysed by AI but it won’t replace doctors or radiologists. A professional does a number of tasks, so the machine will do just one of them, so they can focus on others, so they won’t lose their job.” Matt reiterates.

Delivery of treatment is another area where ethical implications can arise: “Talking therapy, but through a bot.  Bots that answer questions about hospital stays, these are more human-facing aspects of healthcare that people might be hesitant to adopt using AI. Patient data is also a huge fear. Medical data is even more personal and private,” says Matt.

“However, we are still taking humans out of the loop for some aspects of healthcare – You can receive a diagnosis via phone, there’s already an app, and some may find it less troubling to receive a personal diagnosis from a bot.” Ben added that there’s evidence to suggest that people are happy to deal with AI when it’s transactional, but less comfortable when it’s diagnosis in a hospital. For certain specific interactions they might prefer anonymity, sharing deepest concerns and worries, things the machine wouldn’t remember or judge etc.

Final thoughts

To round up the discussion Ben and Matt shared their final thoughts. Ben reminded us that there’s much to discuss “and in context with other issues, not just job losses.”

“AI is one potential solution to numerous problems and I’d like to be optimistic – it’s a force for good. The headlines and the hype need addressing. The press notice for our most recent report was positive, but a newspaper took one fact around job losses and made it into a headline. We need to look at our attachment to this narrative, that machines are the bad guys, because it isn’t always true.”

Matt wants to see us work towards understanding and addressing the impact. “Businesses need to have these conversations – how will it impact your customers and employees? Everyone needs to be talking. Have these conversations. The broader the discussion the better.”

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