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The rise of AI and robotics

Instead of the machines taking over, they will create new and exciting jobs for humans, says Jannie Strydom, CEO at LarcAI.

Johannesburg, 22 Feb 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) may be the single most disruptive technology the world has seen since the industrial revolution. As an example, when AI is added to robotics, we get technologies like Google's driverless cars. These are able to automatically and intelligently make the decisions required to enable them to do what human drivers would do, only better. This combination of AI and robotics is known as robotic process automation (RPA).

Perhaps the biggest concern most people have when they hear terms like AI and RPA is that this new technological revolution will eliminate human jobs. We have already seen how automation in the manufacturing sector has impacted on blue collar workers, and now the concern is this new technology revolution will have a similar impact on white-collar jobs. With unemployment and job creation such stark issues in this country, South Africa, perhaps, has more to fear than most in this respect.

Jannie Strydom, CEO at LarcAI, crafts intelligent process automation (IPA) robots by combining RPA, machine learning and artificial intelligence-powered cognitive services in order to drive competitive advantage for clients. He points out there are good reasons why RPA is replacing people in some respects. It is, he says, ideal for any industry or sector that has routine business processes that follow consistent rules, are methodical, repetitive, predictable and are wholly executed by human beings.

"There are many processes that are strong contenders for automation in the traditional white-collar world. In fact, most desk-bound jobs, where work is done on a computer - in areas such as human resources, the supply chain, finance and IT - are candidates for RPA implementation."

"And companies have a multitude of reasons to consider RPA as well. It has the ability to drive benefits across multiple dimensions, including cost savings, efficiency, accuracy, scalability and compliance. Furthermore, it can do the job at least twice as fast as a human and operates on a 24/7/365 basis, thereby eliminating manual intervention and vastly reducing errors," he adds.

So, will RPA mean the end of the white-collar workforce as we know it? Should we fear this technology because of the negative economic impacts it may have on jobs?

Not according to research conducted by Accenture, which estimates AI could double the annual economic growth rates of many countries by 2035, transforming work and fostering a new relationship between humans and machines.

Ultimately, says Strydom, AI technologies will enable people to make more efficient use of their time and do what humans do best, namely, create, imagine and innovate new things.

If you think about it, he continues, AI would really benefit workers by taking over the most mundane and repetitive parts of various processes. AI algorithms can process thousands more documents - and then act faster - than any human, while also being free of human biases, yet most humans would be bored to tears performing such a task anyway. AI can thus free up skilled workers to focus on more business-critical tasks.

"RPA can be put in place to handle operations like the reading and sending of e-mails, document classification, capturing documents in an ERP system, performing tasks in Excel and gathering information from multiple sources. This will afford humans a chance to escape the dull, repetitive jobs that are the bane of our existence."

In other words, instead of replacing jobs, automation is merely displacing them. In sectors where automation becomes the norm, people will simply find themselves doing different jobs in the same field. There will also be new jobs created in the field of AI itself.

"For example, self-driving vehicles may need remote operators to cope with emergencies, while corporate chatbot and customer-service AIs will still require someone to build and train them, and to write their dialogue. They will also have to be constantly updated and maintained by people," he adds.

Strydom says people should embrace - rather than fear - RPA and AI, as the benefits are enormous: cost reduction; speed of delivery; scalability and flexibility; improved service delivery; better customer service; rapid return on investment; improved accuracy and consistency; faster processing; and perhaps most critically, better use of human efforts.

LarcAI, he continues, facilitates such benefits via the use of best-of-breed services and technologies, including IBM Watson, Microsoft Cognitive Services and Merlyn TOM, along with others for computer vision, biometrics, machine learning, classification, clustering and deep neural networks. These are then pulled together using UIPath's open architecture, which enables the incorporation of best-of-breed third party technologies and the development of custom components for unique problems.

"RPA is not about eliminating people from the work cycle. Instead, it is a way to free people from mundane jobs and allow them to tackle more interesting and exciting tasks. At the same time, it allows companies to process the data from such mundane functions faster, longer and with less errors. It is clearly a win-win situation.

"Fears of a 'robot revolution' have definitely been over-exaggerated: while we will see more robots entering the workforce, these will, at most, be extremely proficient at one or two specific tasks. Humans, on the other hand, can be immensely flexible when it comes to how we work. People's wide range of mental and physical abilities will ensure that humans remain viable in the labour market for a long time to come, as long as we remain open-minded and adaptable," he concludes.


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Jannie Strydom