By @SimonCocking, review of Robotic Process and Cognitive Automation: The Next Phase by  Leslie Willcocks Professor of Work, Technology and Globalisation in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and  Mary Lacity, Professor and International Business Fellow at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Our research reveals the incoherence and exaggeration surrounding the application of AI and cognitive automation to work,” explains Professor Willcocks. In this book, he and Mary explore the realities of AI, beyond the over-hyped headlines which state that, in the next 20 years robots will have all but replaced human workers.

“Future net job loss as a result of automation is much overstated”, says Professor Willcocks. “The deployment of such technologies will take a lot longer than many assume. Meanwhile shortfalls in productivity, dramatic increases in the amount of work we have to do, and skills shortages – amongst other factors, for example job creation – are being seriously underestimated”.

Whilst the researchers acknowledge that true AI has the potential to significantly transform the way we work, they find that such technologies are notably absent from real workplaces. Furthermore, the authors question whether AI applications that get computers to replicate how the human mind works are anywhere near ready for major workplace deployment, and suggest they’ll be unlikely to be so for decades.

Instead, they find that businesses are adopting more modest levels of automation, which are far less likely to render human workers redundant. RPA (defined as the automation of tasks which use set rules to process structured data – a highly repetitive job previously performed by humans), is found to be most commonly used type, and is accelerating, maturing, and growing in global enterprises. However, there is little evidence to suggest even this level of tech is being used as a replacement to the human worker.

However, this doesn’t mean employers ad their human staff can rest easy. The research provides insights to the automation challenges businesses will face, and use case studies to establish action principles that managers and professionals can take to mitigate the risks. As well as providing a realistic forecast on the future role of robots in our workplaces, the book also outlines 32 emerging management practices which organisations can adopt in order to gain significant business value from investments in service automation technologies.

Leslie and Mary have conducted a number of studies into the development of robotic technologies and AI to discover the real impact to our workplaces. Robotic Process and Cognitive Automation: The Next Phase” is their third book on this subject.

This book is thoroughly researched and well written. For what could be a potentially complex subject it is relatively jargon free. There are a series of case studies too, and these really help to demonstrate the real and actual time savings that have already been made by using AI related innovations. In company after company there are positive examples of time saving, and often better insights too, as with IBM Watson and it’s ability to assess large amounts of medical research papers to find the best diagnosis. The point is clearly articulated that this can ideally complement and enhance a human’s ability to deliver the best levels of care, rather than to replace them. We may not be at the point of sentient, self aware machines, but we do now have machines that can do some things far better than we can. As they correctly remind us, while computers beat the best chess and Go players, they were not actually aware of what they had done – they were simply able to process and analyse far more optimal winning moves than a human could manage to do so.

This book is the third in a trilogy to date, which suggests that there is even more to learn about this fascinating and challenging area. As they mention in the book, it still takes Watson IBM 18 months to become an oncology expert, which, on one hand seems like a long time, but is of course quicker than the decades it has required for a human to become an expert in this field, or many others. A clear reminder that things still take longer than we might like.

The large question that the book raises, and we, as humans must try to navigate the right solution to, is whether these impressive gains in terms of what can be automated actually reduce our own working lives / hours spent at work each day. Will these innovations free us, or will we want to leverage the value of what they offer to work even more? It is a tough an ongoing challenge. Another way of looking at it, was that overall productivity on average per worker is rising, partly aided, surely, by the value that these robotic processes are delivering for us. Next we just need to remember to let this liberate rather than enslave ourselves to working more. Either way this is a useful and valuable addition to the literature on the subject.


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