There is a great deal of talk in the media about the effects of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  Eminent minds, including Stephen Hawking, have been warning of its dangers and say that uncontrolled development of AI poses a threat to the human race. Some of these dangers are real and may or may not be avoidable.

These are big issues for the long term.

What worries me is that there are elements of artificial intelligence happening NOW and affecting businesses NOW but boards and leadership teams are looking at them in the same way as climate change.  It might or might not happen and it is certainly not something I need to worry about today.

This could not be further from the truth.  Large corporates will start to see their business models transformed in the next three to five years – in just the same way as the internet has changed business forever.


robot head

In this blog I want to look at the history of various industrial revolutions and put the technology revolution we are facing now into a context.  I call what we are facing now as intelligent automation (IA), distinguishing it from artificial intelligence.  IA is here and now, AI is the future.

And in my next blog I will look at the detail of what intelligent automation means and how corporates are automating without realising the effects on job numbers, profitability structures and the future of their very industry.

  • Machine automation

We are used to automation, it’s what the first Industrial Revolution was built upon. Machines were created that could do things faster and more consistently than people. A lot of people lost their jobs; others had to move from the country to the city in search of work. But other jobs were created over time and automation raised living standards and created life styles that were impossible two hundred years ago.

The first revolution mostly automated blue collar jobs.

  • Communications automation

The second wave of automation came with the communications revolution. Computers automated administrative work, but were often not very intelligent. They were good at doing repetitive tasks and seemed to create more jobs than they destroyed. They have got better and smarter with the application of time and Moore’s law but are reactive machines rather than thinking and learning machines.

This second revolution automated low-end clerical jobs.

  • Intelligent automation

The third wave of automation is still in its infancy. This is the automation that I call “Intelligent Automation”. It is the product of the fact that computers get faster, smaller and smarter all the time. Humans evolve much more slowly.

This third revolution will automate high-end professional jobs. These are the sort of jobs that we have always thought were the exclusive preserve of intelligent humans, doctors, surgeons, senior lawyers and architects.

The third revolution will be driven by computers that learn, they are not as smart as we are – yet; in fact they have been assessed as being about as intelligent as a toddler.

However, like toddlers they learn fast. About 10 years ago academics were adamant that driverless cars would not happen in the next ten years. No question. It was too complex, only humans could do advanced fast pattern recognition, the technology wasn’t there.

And yet just 8 years after this, Google launched its first driverless car.

Let me just recap on that. The world’s best brains said you could not have a driverless car in the next TEN years. And then in just 10 years, they are driving on the streets of Milton Keynes. And even more surprising they are trialing driverless trucks in Nevada.

Why is that – how is it that computers can do something that was thought impossible?   Mainly because we think that to do what humans do, you have to be human. It turns out that you don’t.

Humans are really good at pattern recognition and that is how we drive. But although computers aren’t good at pattern recognition and so could not think like human drivers they could think in a way that was just as useful.

Driving, it turns out can be reduced to a set of rules. They are complex rules for sure, but computers are good at rules. So they drive. And they have advantages. They don’t get road rage when someone carves them up, they don’t get distracted, they don’t need coffee stops and they can go on applying those rules 24 hours a day.

I often say that technology is like tomato ketchup. Remember struggling to get anything out of the glass bottles? You shake and shake and shake and nothing happens, then suddenly, there you are, covered in sauce.

Technology is like that, people talk about it, they do little trials, they talk some more, they do another little trial and then suddenly it’s all over the place.

We are at that moment with Intelligent Automation. In some areas we are in early stage trials – like the DARPA robots, in others, like the driverless car they are on our roads. The sauce is out of the bottle.

There is a long way to go to get all the benefits of Intelligent Automation.   The real benefits from the first Industrial Revolution only came when the entire infrastructure was modernized. Being able to make goods fast and in quantity was a benefit but only if you had the transport to get them to market. The benefits of the second revolution came when organisations organized their processes around the machines rather than the machines around the processes.

The third revolution will be the same. We are already seeing some of the benefits, but most of them are yet to come and which businesses really understand what is about to hit them? Very few.