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The robots are coming

Technology has been transforming the way we work since the industrial revolution. However, the combination of the development of the latest generation of robots and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to drive a dramatic new wave of change across a very wide range of workplaces.

Robots are nothing new in manufacturing but advances in sensor and vision technology are creating new lighter, easier-to-use and more intelligent machines that can work collaboratively with humans. These so-called cobots will take on roles not just in factories but in a wide range of work environments.

Already, some factories have begun to introduce robots that are smart enough to bring and take away parts for workers. The next stage will be robots that can load and unload the parts themselves – rather than repeat a set number of actions a minute. Manufacturers are taking a close interest, with one premium car maker already working very closely with machine and robot manufacturers to scope out what they should invest in. We see these developments leading to significant cost savings for our clients from better use of manpower and improved accuracy and efficiency.

Security and policing
In policing, the current debate is focused on the impact of drones. These could be deployed as first responders to an emergency or crime scene and enable the real time coordination and response of all blue light services. This would enable a shift from current roles that are focused on the ground response to ones which focus more on intelligence. Some police forces, such as Kent Police, are already experimenting with drones to help search for missing people and take pictures of crime scenes.

It will take some time before drones become business as usual and these developments will not necessarily remove frontline resources, but they will allow them to be deployed more effectively.

Financial services
In the financial services sector, we are seeing a shift from companies using algorithms and analytics on the trading floor to using AI and automation to create personalised interactions with customers. FinTech ‘FinGenius’ has a smart system that will answer questions via a webchat so the customer is unaware that a machine is answering their questions; while Charles Schwab is introducing ‘robo-advisors’ that generate and monitor a portfolio of exchange-traded funds for customers.

At PA we are currently looking into how open Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) can help attract customers by opening up access to data. An API is a set of commands and tools that programmers can use when building software for a specific operating system. Third parties will be able to carry out transfers for the user or compile information for mortgage assessments. Lending decisions will then be simpler as a result of a clearer view of the applicants’ disposable income upfront.

Big data methods such as machine learning can also assist the sector in managing the volume and variety of data to gain a greater understanding of consumer behaviour. So they could use these types of algorithms to identify if a consumer is heading towards default, whether they need a new product to optimise their lending, or predict their future product needs. This can then bring a significant reduction in operating costs and increased customer loyalty, and a greater understanding of payments and improved revenue streams.

Another area that is seeing rapid developments in automation and AI is healthcare. We are working with Hampshire County Council to deliver telecare services to enable vulnerable adults to live safely at home. Using a network of sensors linked through a telephone line to a call centre, bed or chair sensors are tailored to an individual’s daily routine. They will then automatically raise the alarm if someone doesn’t go to bed or get up in the morning at their usual time.

With each call out to a vulnerable adult costing up to £6,000 and telecare services costing only a fraction of this, there are obvious financial benefits. In its first two years, the scheme provided 4,200 vulnerable people with telecare which resulted in a net saving of £2.7 million. The service has now been extended to support people vulnerable to falls to help prevent them falling or provide an immediate response if a problem occurs, without having to call an ambulance.

Wearable devices are also driving change in healthcare. Our technology experts are working with Monica Healthcare to develop the next phase of the company’s wearable devices that monitor the health of unborn babies at home and in the hospital. Our own low-cost, body-worn healthcare sensor can remotely monitor a patient’s critical health indicators and check whether they have taken their medication.

A real benefit of these developments is the way it frees up staff. So a hospital group in the US, we worked with, was having difficulty recruiting radiologists in a distant part of the country but by installing a remote system three hospitals were able to share a single radiologist.

AI and robotics is not the preserve of large corporates or start-ups. These exciting technologies are capturing the imagination of children. At PA, our annual Raspberry Pi competition encourages school children to innovate, and some of our best winners have created robots that support patients – from prevention of illnesses through to cure. There’s the robot dog – ‘FitDog’ – which encourages children to exercise, while an automated pill dispenser makes managing medicine easier. The dispenser will ensure the correct dosages drop out of the dispenser at the specified times and if sensors detect pills haven’t moved once dispensed, an alert is sent to a family member who can remind them. It is these type of inventions that could dramatically change the role of the healthcare worker.

All these examples underline that, across a very wide variety of sectors, we are on the brink of truly significant change in how we work and what we do.

Alan spoke at Management Today’s Future of Work conference

Read Alan's view on how this will impact your sector


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