Are you ready for the robot revolution?

I recently attended a very interesting FTSE Non Executive Directors’ event on AI hosted by EY and the Financial Times NED Club, entitled ‘Are you ready for the robot revolution’? and thought there were some interesting takeaways to report.

What a difference a year makes
Right at the start there was recognition that interest in the subject has increased substantially in the past year, with many more people attending this year’s event than last.

Top Tech
Panellists were initially asked to name their current top two technologies. There was agreement that these consisted of AI and big data – and the fact that both went together (data was described as the new oil – hard to refine, but once done very valuable). There was also consensus that blockchain is still in the lab and has a few years before it goes mainstream. One panellist noted that it is the current combination of new technologies that is feeding the fourth industrial revolution, enabling businesses to make better decisions.

Impact on work
It was interesting how quickly the conversation moved from one of technology to one of society. Some industries will face more of an existential crisis than others, with auto manufacturing comparing less favourably to wine production. The point was made that AI and automation will eliminate tasks, not jobs (jobs consisting of a series of tasks); if your job consists of fewer tasks, then it will be more susceptible to automation (such as truck driving). The importance of upskilling was highlighted as technology will augment jobs as well as replace them; that reflects the classic ‘moving up the value chain’ mantra that humans will have to do. There was some optimism as new jobs will be created, mainly in the white collar space as highlighted in this EY report.

The panel debated how the traditional learning/apprenticeship model is changing, with many of the lower lever tasks being automated. There were differing views; whilst learning from experience is important, there is benefit to not having to spend years undertaking mundane, repetitive tasks. Apprentices should be trained to think, analyse and use judgement. However, as the evening was talking about technology, the importance of statistics and mathematics in this area was emphasised, along with encouraging more students to take STEM subjects. The importance of life-long training to stay relevant was also emphasised.

Getting going
In a room made up primarily of FTSE NEDs, there was a question about how organisations should get started. Advice was to start small, ‘playing around’ with the technologies which will help make things real. [Interestingly this is the stance we have taken at ICAEW, with our new ICAEW AI Assistant now live and answering questions on AI at] As with any IT investment, a business case needs to be made, and reference was made to the difficulty of calculating the NPV of a project. Advice was to concentrate on the outcomes of the new technology, how it benefits customers and how business models may change. A final piece of advice was to consider the cyber risk of any new project and whether it needs to go on the risk register.

The final thought of the evening was the impact of AI on society and the fact that we need to think about the ethics of what we are doing. Focus on shareholder value, yes, but also consider outcomes from an ethical perspective. This is perhaps more of a challenge to the technology industry more generally.