Can robots coexist with humans?

Working together: will robots be central to our future?

With advances in artificial intelligence forging ahead, it’s time to think seriously about how we see robots fitting into our society.

Of all the tech trends dominating headlines at the moment, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be generating the most debate.

As we continue to develop this technology – at a seemingly exponential rate – we face increasing pressure to examine the role we really want it to fulfil, and how it should be integrated.

With many high-profile figures – from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk – warning of the potential pitfalls, it may take time before society fully accepts the idea of ubiquitous AI, or “robot workers”. But in reality, there is a strong argument that, far from capping innovation in AI, we should find ways to put it to use in order to stay ahead.

Prudential’s global head of AI, Dr Michael Natusch, says machine learning in a business context grew out of a need for up-to-the-minute analytical tools. “What really drew people’s attention across a wide range of industries to machine learning is the ability to extract insight out of large, multi-structured data sets,” he says. “Drawing understanding and insights in an automated and continuous way – that’s what we really mean by AI.

“The way businesses can use AI is exactly the same way that businesses can use human intelligence. It enables us to make decisions, to understand what’s happening, and do things faster, better and cheaper.”

The labour debate

Of course, this drive to lower costs and save time may mean changes to some job roles we know today. According to a recent PwC report, around 30pc of existing UK jobs face automation over the next 15 years – with manual roles in areas such as manufacturing, transport and retail likely to be most affected.

But PwC’s chief economist John Hawksworth believes this could be a positive move. “Automating more repetitive tasks will eliminate some existing jobs, but could also enable workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding and creative work, removing the monotony from our day jobs,” he explains.

And that’s not to mention the upshot in productivity this will bring: “Advances in robotics and AI should also create additional jobs in less automatable parts of the economy as this extra wealth is spent or invested.

“The UK employment rate is at its highest level now since comparable records began in 1971, despite all the advances in digital and other labour-saving technologies we have seen since.”

And as Dr Natusch notes, this widespread concern over AI may be blinding people to its strengths. “Very often, it sounds like AI is in competition with humans, but the real power will come from humans and AI augmenting each other,” he says. “It’s this symbiosis of humans and AI that will drive major advances across a wide range of industries.”

Real robot workers

Of course, cultural factors are just as important as economic ones – especially in sectors such as retail, where robots could prove useful in customer service roles. Hitachi is one company exploring the potential for AI in this area.

Their “symbiotic” robot, named EMIEW3, is designed for customer service, using a cloud-connected “brain” and surveillance cameras to spot people in need of help, communicate with them and offer assistance. Having already been trialled at Tokyo’s busy Haneda Airport, EMIEW3 arrived in the UK for the first time this year.

“These trials are helping to give us a first-hand sense of people’s attitudes to robots, and to see if they find them genuinely helpful,” explains Dr Rachel Jones, senior strategy designer for Hitachi Europe. “It’s also leading to some interesting learnings about the interactions between humans and robots.”

Interestingly, Dr Jones’ team has already noticed contrasts in the way different demographics respond this new technology. “For example, people in Japan are much more open to innovative technologies, and therefore the introduction of robots is generally embraced more positively,” she explains.

“In Europe and the UK, the reception of robots appears to be more cautious. This raises broader questions about the future of society, including where we want to go with new technologies and how we see robots fitting in.”

But even while we work through the creases from a logistical perspective, Dr Natusch remains positive. “I think AI will enable us to provide services to people that we are not remotely able to do today,” he says. “And that by itself will bring wealth and employment across nations.”

And it’s clear that businesses, in particular, cannot ignore this trend. “I think it’s absolutely imperative to get started with AI today, because ultimately that is what will ensure survival of your organisation,” says Dr Natusch. “Rather than thinking long and hard about your AI strategy, the key thing is to get started with something now.”

Innovations for the future

Modern life is saturated with data, and new technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world?

Hitachi believes that Social Innovation should underpin everything they do, so they can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today.

Visit social-innovation.hitachi to learn how Social Innovation is helping Hitachi drive change across the globe.

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