In my last blog I reviewed some of the writing on intelligent automation. They range from the optimistic to the dystopian but it is clear that everyone sees significant automation as inexorable – it can’t be stopped. And if we haven’t started thinking about its impact on our business or organisation, we may already be too late to ensure we stay competitive.

Inexorable definition image

I thought one of the most interesting comments came from Nick Jennings, professor of Computer Science at Southampton University, who says he doesn’t foresee runaway advances in the field of intelligent automation that will lead to a dystopian future.

Nick Jennings

“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,” he says. “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 mean that everyone is going to see, steady, inexorable progress.

Not everyone agrees with this view but for me the key word here is “inexorable”.

Once you have let the genie out of the bottle there is no putting it back in. When the first car rolled off Ford’s production line the world began to change and it changed inexorably. When new technology launches people tend to fall into two camps; either they see the possibilities or the dangers. Intelligent automation is no different from that. However many dangers it may hold we will not be able to stop the march of technology.

There are a lot of parallels to the nuclear story here. This is a technology that can also be used for good or ill. It has the potential to both destroy the world and to save us from many of the consequences of over use of fossil fuels. What we have learnt to do with nuclear is to manage it. No nation, even the most renegade, has used nuclear weapons. Despite some of the nuclear accidents, which have in total killed far fewer people than are killed on the roads of Britain in a year, nuclear energy has been beneficial, and the benefit from nuclear medicine has been incalculable.

Intelligent automation is the same. You need to ride the wave and to do that you have to adopt the technology.

Governments and companies need to take seriously both the threats and the opportunities of intelligent automation and start to learn how to manage it.

Melvin Bragg’s “In Our Time” programme

History has a lot to teach us. Sometimes the links are not obvious but listening the other day to Melvin Bragg’s “In Our Time” programme on the Lancashire cotton famine I was reminded yet again how the survivors in business are those who invest in the future. Much of the Lancashire cotton industry was destroyed but the survivors were those companies that had invested in technology and growth. And I’m sure at the time there were a lot of people telling them about the dangers.

So today when we see so much about the dangers of artificial intelligence and we have Elon Musk and others pouring millions into researching its problems what should companies do?

So what are the things you should be doing now?

1. Decide that change really is inexorable and is not going to go away

2. Decide whether you are going to be a leader or a close follower – remember that doing nothing is not an option unless you want to destroy your business

3. Develop a process for looking at the new technologies that might affect your business. It’s very clear from all the research on intelligent automation I have done that few companies have this.

In my next blog I’ll talk about what I think this process should be and would welcome your views and any examples of who is doing this well.