The world is changing fast and no more so than in the world of robotics, or artificial intelligence (AI). The ‘narrow’ AI solutions we have now are already giving us self-driving cars, smart buildings, Siri and IBM’s chess-playing computer, for example, and they are all general purpose problem-solving machines in essence. But what’s around the corner is mind-blowing by comparison.
Narrow AI will move into top gear and become strong AI or General Intelligence AI and this is when speech recognition programmes, for example – currently still developing – will include context that only humans can provide today. The AI translators won’t confuse ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ for example – Lynne Truss’ famous book on punctuation - anymore.
Google Translate, for example, is improving all the time and the error rate is decreasing. Not only that, it can translate between language pairs it has never explicitly learned as it learns from millions of examples, something the company calls ‘zero-shot’ translation.
Lip reading will be another breakthrough. A professional lip-reader attempting to decipher 200 randomly- selected TV clips achieved a success rate of only 12.4% while Google’s DeepMind system managed 46.8%. And it managed this when the audio and video were out of sync. This breakthrough has applications with silent dictation to Siri in noisy environments. The iPhone will read your lips via its camera rather than listening to your voice.
What’s to come?
Scare stories abound that whole swathes of administrative jobs will disappear and be replaced by robots. It’s already happened in car manufacturing. One cannot get around the fact that AI can perform highly repetitive manual tasks more quickly and cheaper and arguably more accurately than humans. Teams of accountants and auditors may lose their jobs if audits and financial reporting can be automated. Ditto the call centre industry.
Others predict that creative roles will come to the fore, as these are the type of jobs that cannot be replicated by artificial intelligence. Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart PhD, Senior Lecturer at MIT. Boston says: “As we face the threat of AI automating jobs, empathetic, intuitive and creative will be the human skills that will help us survive.”
One thing Simpson is sure about and that is that artificial intelligence will not make us all jobless.
Future proofing business?
Rob McCargow is the AI Programme Leader at the consultancy firm. “The important thing about AI is that it’s a horizontal technology applicable to every single internal function and will contribute to how we’ll adapt the firm for years to come. We’re making sure that we harness this disruptive power in order to future proof our business.“ PwC works with third party AI companies, academia and venture capitalists to identify the best use cases for AI. “The key benefits are in establishing how AI drives efficiency and creates novel and valuable services for our clients,” says McCargow.
He believes one big opportunity is in deriving actionable insights from big data. Another is to align its 223,000 global workforce to the right work to achieve optimum utilisation, and yet another is to develop tools to conduct research at a rapid pace and provide insights into regulations for clients. And the list doesn’t end there.
“A very practical sub-set of AI is NLG (Natural Language Generation) where you can drop huge datasets such as financial spreadsheets into an NLG system which converts it to natural language and describes issues such as mis-use of expenses and missed supplier discounts,” says McCargow.
“This would ordinarily take hundreds of man hours to produce. The full automation of these systems is not perfect and requires a human in the loop, but it means that staff can focus their time productively on more rewarding and higher value strategic work”. The impact of AI upon the sector will continually change the shape of the workforce. PwC, for example, has already announced that it will be employing 1,000 more technologists by 2020.
“Sitting at a desk 9-5 is not a prerequisite anymore,” says McCargow. “Where we work and where we travel to will change as rapidly maturing technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality will impact on this.
The changes are already happening. Just take a look at the travel world and already we have witnessed the rise of the chat bot, the AI-powered customer service provision or ‘cognitive assistant’ online. When was the last time a human answered the phone to you? Many customers think they are talking to humans. Just think of Google Assistant.
Sophisticated telephony has already gone the way of the non-human provision, frustrating though that is at times. The likes of Airbnb already have AI-powered systems that learn customer preferences. KLM is using AI to help staff respond to questions it receives on social media. Its Digital Genius is trained to answer more than 60,000 questions, while at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, KLM’s robot Spencer deals with customer service. Pepper is the friendly robot at two Belgian airports, able to answer more than 1,000 questions travellers might have.
Check-in at the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan is dealt with by a robot, while several other hotels, including Residence Inn and Holiday Inn, are using robots to deliver room service. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas cruise ship has a Bionic Bar with robot bartenders. There is also talk of aircraft built from generative parts in a 3D printer.
EasyJet talks of complementing rather than replacing the human workforce. The airline’s Alberto Rey-Villaverde explains: “The projected outcome was never to reduce the workforce. It was more about empowering it. People will be able to dedicate their time to more complex and sophisticated tasks.”