The concept of automation frightens some companies. Research has shown that robots can perform tasks with more accuracy and cheaply, and recent studies suggest that 250,000 public sector admin jobs alone, including 24,000 GP receptionists, will be lost to new technology.
The good news is that it’s predicted robots won’t make these jobs obsolete until 2030. So until then, we’re likely to see a rise in the number of companies investing in intelligent software that will have a symbiotic relationship with the human workforce.
The software, namely chatbots, is already handling the repetitive and mundane aspects of the day-to-day operations of business, from processing data to posting social media updates to dealing with customer queries. This is freeing employees to focus on more important and creative tasks.
At Hark, a Leeds-based software start-up that has built a real-time environmental monitoring system for the healthcare industry and smart buildings, the team has introduced chatbots over the last 18 months to boost efficiency when developing its products. Some of the tools they use are their own creation, while others are third-party applications.
"They’ve [especially Slack] helped streamline our communication," says CEO Jordan Appleson. "We also have chatbots that update us with build and release information, so we can be acutely aware of any problems with our monitoring system."
Intelligent software is designed to do most of the heavy lifting. This means there is minimal input and effort required at the user’s end.
"Having information pushed to us and not having to pull all of it in ourselves means we can be proactive rather than reactive to issues. This ultimately allows us to be one step ahead of any issues while remaining focused on our primary business goals," says Appleson.
Chatbots should be integrated seamlessly around day-to-day workings as long as they’re not obtrusive, he adds. They must also be easy to navigate.
According to Dean Withey, CEO and founder of Ubisend, which has built chatbots for several multinational companies, including Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, the benefit of artificial intelligence (AI) is its ability to learn conversational skills and understand commands. This has huge potential for handling customer service and marketing. But it can also backfire, as illustrated by Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay, which last year posted racist and sexist tweets.
The future of work
Though research from PwC indicates that up to a third of all British jobs will be taken over by robots and AI by 2030, not everyone is as downbeat or concerned.
Susy Roberts is the founder of personal development providers Hunter Roberts. She works with large corporations and advises them on how to manage employees. She says that AI and chatbots will most likely only cover the basic roles, especially in retail and customer-facing environments.
"The human touch won’t disappear completely. It’s something that intelligent software won’t be able to replicate or handle with ease and it’ll continue to be valued, particularly if we’re talking about premium products, services and experiences."
Roberts believes that AI and chatbots could have their biggest impact in the corporate and office environments, where the most important face-to-face interaction is likely to be with clients. This will lead to a shift in hiring strategy.
As employees won’t have to do the drudge work and will be able to give their full attention to their clients and tasks that require critical and creative thinking, employers will place more emphasis on looking for people with higher level skills, such as leadership, senior level analytics and problem solving.
"Another positive aspect of increasing levels of automation is that it will bring the flexibility that millennials tell us they crave," she adds. "This generation wants a lifestyle, not a job - working the way they want to work is more important to them than a fat salary alone, and automation will allow for more part-time and home working positions."