Discussing Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation

A robotic hand reaches upwards

I was recently invited to discuss my thinking with a private organisation to help founders share knowledge, experience and inspiration. Here is what I shared in the interview.

Where are we at the moment in the adoption of AI, automation and robotics?
While the use of robotics across industrial sectors is now widespread, the rate of adoption of artificial intelligence is far lower. Use of AI is heavily skewed towards large companies, with around one third of businesses reporting that they use it regularly. In relation to intelligent automation, adoption rates reach around 90% in media, publishing, manufacturing and banking in the US. In the retail and the public sectors, adoption rates are lower due to much smaller budgets being available on average.

What examples are there of this being used to disrupt or improve business processes? How fundamental a shift in business models is automation going to bring?
AI-driven automation does not just relate to undertaking routine tasks such as chatbots answering common customer queries. It is now being used by Netflix to decide which films to make and by AB InBev to enhance their beer recipes for example. While manufacturing, supply-chain management and customer service processes are already using automation and AI to improve, higher-level applications will soon start to be impact on knowledge workers such as lawyers, scientists, programmers and consultants.

The real disruption though will come through a combination of automation and the new generation of Web3 blockchain-based technologies that are disrupting business models through new distributed and decentralised forms of ownership and governance.

How can businesses make sure they are maximising the benefits of automation?
Business leaders need to do three things. The first is to diagnose and resolve any inhibitors that may be operating in their organisation that are preventing digital transformation and business process automation initiatives from having an impact, such as over-rigid management structures and poorly-designed enterprise architectures.

The second is to invest in digital innovation, so that their organisations focus on discovering new forms of value for customers through a deep understanding of the logic and architectures of digital platforms that are behind new disruptive business models of the digital economy.

And finally organisations need to avoid mission-critical mistakes by taking a systemic approach to their digital transformation initiatives, by creating alignment, communication that is trusted and full engagement from all involved.

What do SME owners need to know about this, whether in a sector that could take advantage of this directly or one that might be affected by this?
2021 saw significant advances in artificial intelligence technologies, algorithm design and applications. What is exciting for SMEs is that the massive computational servers necessary to implement AI solutions are now becoming cloud-based, resulting in much lower costs of entry. A second trend is that new forms of value are being created by innovation ecosystems, meaning that SMEs will be able to grow through carefully chosen collaborative partnerships and the sharing of knowledge and intelligence through open deep tech platforms.

What issues do businesses need to think about here, particularly around the human element such as retraining and redesigning jobs, and communicating this?
Digital transformation initiatives are successful when they are accompanied by cultural transformation programmes. Failure to take the human dimension into account runs the risk of extremely expensive failure. So leaders need to consider the employee experience as much as their digital customer experiences, and use technology to fully empower, educate and engage their people.

There is still a major digital skills gap meaning that businesses are struggling to hire tech professionals. They can help to bridge this gap through seeking out talented people who may not have traditional educational backgrounds, but who have design expertise, creative skills and a passion for learning and developing in this area.

What are the lessons from companies, such as WorldFirst, which benefited from the first meaningful wave of automation?
Companies which made an early move into automation have a massive advantage due to the fact that it is not just a case of adopting new technology but transforming the whole organisation. This means understanding how to achieve organisation-wide agility, and developing disruptive business models and value propositions. To do this leaders need to help everyone in their organisation develop what we call “platform vision”, i.e., understanding the nature and architecture of platforms and how they create entirely new digital operating systems and enterprise architectures.

Where else could automation and robotics lead to? Where are we on that journey?
At this moment in time there are major concerns that algorithmic systems are being deployed by businesses for high levels of monitoring and automated decision-making. The problem is that people are impacted by decisions made without empathy and using algorithms which have the potential to be biased and discriminatory. A recent study from the Institute for the Future of Work found that it is not the replacement of humans by machines but the treatment of humans as machines that we should be most concerned about.

To over come these issues, leaders need to explain how employees’ personal, and potentially sensitive, information is used to make decisions, ensure that there are clear opportunities to challenge or seek redress, and provide a system of governance to ensure the integrity of the quality of algorithms and AI systems in use in the organisation.

Are there reasons to be concerned about this, particularly the potential to bump into real-world applications?
We are now at a bifurcation point, where there are some very real dangers from a small number of big tech companies ending up with more power than sovereign countries.

Recent scandals relating to Facebook/Meta which have come to light through whistleblowers show the degree to which automation and AI technologies can be abused when companies place the pursuit of profit before people. People’s concerns around the abuse of power and invasion of privacy have only increased with Mark Zuckerberg’s introduction to Meta’s metaverse, because AI will be used to analyse speech, and to predict behaviour, attitudes and emotions through the analysis of gestures and facial expressions.

Is there a danger that AI and algorithms have too much influence? What can be done about this, and is there a need for controls to legislate this?
Two major areas where people have been impacted by the influence of algorithms have been political bias on social media, and discriminatory bias in AI-driven recruitment processes. The UK Government recognised in their recently published National AI Strategy that we are now facing profound moral questions and transformations that will impact the whole of humanity as the power of AI and automation increases exponentially. For this reason we need moral and ethical guidelines for the use of AI to ensure that it is trustworthy and that algorithms are transparent.

New Web3 technologies based on blockchain are disrupting incumbent big techs due to their decentralised models of ownership of assets and organisation. This means that there is a path forward allowing us to solve questions of transparency, trust and diversity and inclusion in the digital economy and limit big tech’s potential to abuse the current power that it currently has.

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Simon Robinson is the CEO (Worldwide) of Holonomics and the co-author of Deep Tech and the Amplified Organisation, Customer Experiences with Soul and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.

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Simon Robinson

Simon Robinson

Co-author of Deep Tech and the Amplified Organisation, Customer Experiences with Soul and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. CEO of Holonomics