Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, May 23, 2022

As AI Begets IA, Whither Tomorrow’s Workers? 

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Deep thinkers pondering the role of automation in the workplace are defining a new domain of appropriate—and controllable—technologies under the rubric of “intelligent automation” that promises to handle rote business processes. Proponents assert the application of IA would change the workplace in a number of important ways—most notably changing data processors into data analyzers—while addressing larger demographic issues like skills shortages and an aging workforce.

The management consultant KPMG attempts to gauge the state of IA in a new report that describes the business tool as a combination of robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive automation, enabled by a growing list of technologies such as AI, natural-language processing and a control template dubbed “rules-based macros.”

RPA refers to software configurations, otherwise known as “bots,” used, for instance, to process transactions, crunch data or respond to customer queries in lieu of human technical support.

Under this IA framework, bots handle the mundane stuff—moving a transaction from one step to the next, for example—while cognitive systems help analyze data and serve as a complement to emerging “knowledge workers.”

While data analytics is viewed as a “mature” enterprise technology, KPMG concludes that “IA adoption is much more nascent in most organizations, with less than 20 percent of firms surveyed at scale saying they are beyond pilot stage and ‘up and running’ with their IA efforts.” Immature technologies and uncertainty about RPA’s impact are among the reasons for hesitation.

IA will take jobs from human workers, hence organizations are struggling to determine how to retrain workers and, if so, what that retraining should cover. An easier answer is simply eliminating jobs and letting displaced workers go, the study acknowledges.

Along with the usual ROI objectives like reducing operating costs, boosting customer engagement and squeezing more insights from data, the consultant notes that early adopters are seeking a template for scaling IA deployments in a way that spans entire business processes. While more than half the companies surveyed by KPMG believe they can scale IA initiatives within twelve months, the report’s authors warn: “The short history of IA efforts, however, leads us to believe these projections are optimistic.”

The reasons for caution vary, ranging from uncoordinated rollouts and failure to integrate those efforts across organizations to the inability to scale initiatives along with an overall lack of IA management skills. “Organizations are struggling to determine how to best address the impact of IA (especially RPA and its associated potential to eliminate jobs) on the organization,” the KPMG report notes.

“Too much lip service is being paid to talk down the potential for job loss as well as the potential for re-training and re-skilling,” the report concludes.

KPMG said it surveyed about 590 business executives for its IA report.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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