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The people vs AI and automation

It is vital to understand both the benefits of and the challenges created by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in order to implement it without threatening jobs.

While there is a perception, and even a palpable fear, around the exponentially increasing capability of AI and the potential for robots to negatively impact on jobs, the benefits of the technology are also starting to be recognised.

For one thing, explains Dr Abhinanda Barman, Academic Dean at CTU Training Solutions SA, there are many jobs out there – such as nurses, teachers and social workers – that require social and human interaction and cannot be performed by robots.

“Of course, in SA there is more to the implementation of such solutions than merely the potential offered by the technology. There are socio-economic factors to consider, such as whether the company has the funds available to invest in AI, and societal issues related to the social acceptability of using robots, not to mention ethical concerns around unemployment,” she says.

“So any potential implementation of AI in a business requires, first and foremost, an understanding of the value it brings to the business – especially if it is going to impact on jobs. Broadly speaking, the advantages are numerous and include improved safety, greater speed and increased consistency.”

She suggests that the jobs most at risk are the process-driven ones, which is why SA needs to ensure the next generation of workers is equipped – through the education system – with critical fourth industrial revolution (4IR) skills relating to programming, robotics and IT security, to name a few.

“It is also worth noting from a gender perspective that there is an under-representation of women in industries, especially IT. With women 15% less likely to be senior managers, they are likely to be lower down the company hierarchy and thus at higher risk of displacement by automation. Therefore we need to ask what tomorrow’s labour market will look like for women – are we harnessing AI to narrow these gaps, or is it widening them?”

Dr Michael Ajayi, Faculty Head for IT at CTU Training SA, adds that the actual implementation of AI into a business can be tricky and that it is critical to understand what AI is and the link between this and robots.

“There is often a misconception when people talk of AI and robots. The general image is of an anthropomorphic robot like in the movies, but the reality is that many robots are nothing like that. Some good examples of existing bots include AI-controlled robots like those involved with GPS navigation and Google searches,” he says.

“This is what is defined as robotic process automation (RPA), which is, in fact, software that learns and carries out virtual tasks. RPA is able to boost efficiencies by automating many regular and mundane processes that previously required human action – often in a time-consuming fashion.”

In a similar manner, he continues, the internet of things (IOT) enables the use of embedded sensors to perform tasks automatically. This may be as simple as a connected fridge recognising that milk is running out and ordering more, or as complex as the automations required to create a smart city.

From a training perspective, he notes that skills development in this space is critical, and that, most especially, programming and engineering skills are sought after in this environment.

“These skills are vital, as the benefits offered by robotics and automation are already being felt in many sectors. These include in healthcare – offering predictive analysis or remote surgery – in respect of self-driving vehicles in the transport sector, and in reducing human error and fraud in financial services, to name a few. It is even moving into the consumer space, in the form of IOT-run smart houses.

“There can be little doubt that AI, robotics and automation are in the process of changing the world as we know it. The way forward lies in acknowledging both its benefits and challenges, in implementing it where it can be most effective, and in ensuring that people are trained both in the technologies related to this field and in the complementary skills required to support those areas of the business where a human being is still preferred to a machine,” he concludes.

This article was published in partnership with ITWeb.