I’ve written at length about intelligent automation in my blog and about how business leaders need not only to be aware of the opportunities it presents, but also the considerable impact on jobs – from senior management to the most junior – and profitability structures, to say nothing of their long term strategy.

Robot hand

I have looked at how boards need to recognise the importance of intelligent automation and artificial intelligence now.  But how do others view automation? Here I look at the current commentary on the subject – from a business perspective.

Using intelligent automation to outpace rivals

Writing in the Jakarta Post, the chief operating officer of Cognizant, Sean Middleton, says intelligent automation is about uniting humans and machines, rather than replacing workers. While robots are for science fiction, he says software tools that empower workers are helping to deliver massive savings and are enabling people to work much smarter.

He says: “Humans performing knowledge work are complemented by technology in increasingly high-value ways. Humans are attaining new levels of process efficiency at reduced cost. People are still essential to process work in banking, healthcare, life sciences and insurance. So, smart businesses are using intelligent automation to also empower people.

“Yet, the real prize of process automation is in the explosion of rich process-level data. Analytics can help make meaning of this data and extract insights from it, which can then help organisations improve performance and innovate for the needs of tomorrow.

“Organisations that can master smart robots tethered to smart data will outpace rivals who don’t — or can’t.”

Robot jigsaw

Is the pace of change too fast?

Erik Brynjolfsson is an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-author of The Second Machine Age. He argues the pace of growth in intelligent automation is happening too fast for the economy to adjust and claims as many as half of all existing jobs will be replaced by machines in two decades.

He says: “I think it’s going to require a similar level of overall change but it’s probably going to have to happen faster. The steam engine was a remarkable breakthrough and really set off the industrial revolution, but as we say in the book it doubled in power and efficiency approximately once every 70 years and quadrupled after 140 years.

“The computer processor doubles in power every 18 months, 10 times greater every five years, it’s a very different scale of advancement and it’s affecting a broader set of the economy than the steam engine did, in terms of all the cognitive tasks. It’s happening a lot faster and more pervasively than before.”

Steady progress through intelligent automation

Speaking to TechRepublic, Nick Jennings, professor of Computer Science at Southampton University, disagrees and says he doesn’t foresee runaway advances in the field of intelligent automation that will lead to a dystopian future.

“I see a gradual increase in automation and a gradual increase in the software tools that people have to support them in their day-to-day work. I don’t see any non-linearities, I see processing getting better, speeds getting better, more data becoming available and us running more complicated algorithms on that data. I don’t see anything that is going to cause a phase change or a disjunction in one go.

“Barring quantum computing appearing, something that really would change the game for everything, I think standard breakthroughs that everyone is going to see, steady, inexorable progress.”

Computer man

Creating the conditions for “intelligence explosion”

Renowned philosopher Nick Bostrom tells the International Business Times it would be a “great tragedy” if human-level artificial intelligence (AI) is never developed.

This is particularly surprising as Bostrom heads the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and gained worldwide attention with his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which was seized on by people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking as evidence for the dangers of AI.

However, Bostrom says: “I think that the path to the best possible future goes through the creation of machine intelligence at some point. I think it would be a great tragedy if it were never developed.

“I think though it would be greatly desirable to put in some effort to solve the control problem, to figure out how to set up the initial conditions for this intelligence explosion in the best possible way to increase the odds that this big future will be saved according to human values.”

Computers to inform decisions

One of the biggest names in the intelligent automation and AI sector is IBM which has grabbed headlines around the globe with Watson, a cognitive computer that won TV show Jeopardy and trounced Chess grand master Gary Kasparov.

At a recent conference Ginni Rometty, the Chairman and CEO of IBM, stood on stage in front of a packed room and announced that she was going to make “a bold prediction.”

“In the future, every decision that mankind makes is going to be informed by a cognitive system like Watson,” she said, “and our lives will be better for it.”

“As Watson gets smarter, his ability to reason is going to exponentially increase,” Rometty said. “What will be really game-changing won’t be Watson’s knack for recalling facts faster than even the most trivia-savvy human, but its ability to assist people with the complex and nuanced tasks of decision-making and analysis.

“Watson deals in the grey area, where there’s not a perfect right and wrong answer,” she continued. “That’s the hardest thing we do as humans.”

Rometty makes a valid point and computers like Watson that can draw pros and cons for an argument from billions of points of data around the world in seconds will have obvious benefits.


The AI aliens have landed

With so much said around intelligent automation – ranging from miracle cures and driverless cars to the end of humans and other apocalyptic scenarios – it’s worth remembering we are still at the beginning of a long journey of discovery.

Recently, venture capitalist and principal of the Founders Fund Peter Thiel, said he was relaxed about the advance of intelligent automation and argues full artificial intelligence is still a long way off, meaning we will have a far deeper understanding of it.

However, speaking in Inc. he does add: “If we had full, strong AI, it would be like aliens landing on this planet. And if aliens landed on this planet, we wouldn’t ask them if they could help us with the economy. We’d ask them if they planned to do us harm.

“At this point I think all trends are overrated,” Thiel adds. “If you hear the words Big Data, cloud computing, you need to run away as fast as you possibly can. Just think fraud. And run away.”

There is much excitement around the rise of the machines and all offer some great opportunities – and threats – to businesses. The debate rages on and it would be great to hear about your own thinking around intelligent automation – in your business, your sector and our broader society.