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Today and tomorrow: The four biggest challenges and opportunities of automation and artificial intelligence

The future. When we talk about it, it comes in two hugely different guises. One is shiny, flying cars in a technology-filled utopia and the other is a more dystopian future that’s hugely reminiscent of Skynet.

Thought leaders in tech have been debating these two vastly different futures for years now. Tesla’s Elon Musk – a futurologist and visionary – talks about artificial intelligence in a way that definitely falls on the dystopian spectrum saying that “Robots and AI will be able to do everything better than us, creating the biggest risk that we face as a civilisation”. However, Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook believes that “there are naysayers drumming up doomsday scenarios when it comes to robotics, AI and automation”.

But let’s be honest, the reality is that the future isn’t going to be either of these scenarios. It’ll fall somewhere in between, utilising AI and automation in a way that helps humans but doesn’t control or intrude on their lives.

And honestly, this future is already starting to happen around us today in the public sector.

Customer self service, chatbots in customer services, processing automation, virtual assistants, sensor AI and AI-assisted robotic process automation. They’re all technologies that are happening now but they’ve got ramifications and considerations for tomorrow.

So, what are some of the big challenges we are facing with automation both today and tomorrow and what opportunities could it offer?

Automation and jobs

The automotive industry is well recognised for their automation maturity. Self-driving cars are already a reality, and in the future, they could drastically change how both taxis and road haulage work. But when you think about it realistically, there’s going to be an awful lot of steps that have to happen after this technology is perfected before we get to a world where you’re not calling a taxi driver or having your goods delivered by another human being. Safety legislation would have to change, road and highway infrastructure would have to adapt – there’s going to be a lot of moving parts brought together before drivers are phased out. As far as automation in the public sector goes, we’re delivering more personal services in which real human interaction is valued. However, where automation can help is through reducing simple task that take front-line service team efforts. This then frees up human time for complex cases where empathy, understanding and weighing up risks is required.

Supporting better outcomes

When we explore the world of automation, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve got to be ready to support better outcomes for our technology. Machines do not learn and use intelligence in the same way as we do. This could be seen as a negative when it comes to issues that require empathy and emotional understanding but the benefit of this is that a machine will be able to look through multitudes of data sources – in real-time – and spot trends that might be in underlying data. Automation could work in harmony with the public sector, helping to sift through scenarios and offer prompts and predictions based on past situations. Google AI functionality has shown that there are still issues with colloquial/localised language being used when interacting with automated Chat Bots. But to combat this barrier, Google AI has developed machine learning elements so that it’s understanding of regional differences in language will grow and it will learn to understand. What is important in supporting these better outcomes as a council is journey mapping – so that if the automated conversation becomes strained, it can be seamlessly passed on to a suitable front-line team member.

Supply vs demand

We’re now at a tipping point where digital is no longer seen as a thing or concept – it is part of everything we do. AI in the public sector might seem far away but we’re starting to develop extremely beneficial smart Chat Bots and automated processes to help empower your citizens and customers. For example, for social housing, AI plugged into sensors in the property could measure the temperature across all properties and keep things comfortable or even be connected to GP services for more vulnerable residents.

AI could also empower you working in the sector. Taking the human out of processing with automation makes things much more efficient, verifying and collating vast amounts of data before you’ve even had your morning coffee. It could be your virtual PA, helping you to capture more time in the day and help you focus your time on the tasks that will have the greatest impact for the people you serve.

Where do ethics sit in automation?

The biggest challenge of all facing us both today and tomorrow is ethical automation. But do you think ethics even fit in automation? Should we be thinking of all these challenges from a philosophical perspective as opposed to any other piece of tech where you just plug it in, let it do its job and move on? AI should be there to support you and your citizens. Should we as humans always have primacy in every decision-making process or are we comfortable and happy to devolve some of that decision making to a machine? As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings… not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

The importance of working with your technology partner

Work with your technology partner to make the most of these opportunities and understand journey mapping to see where this technology will have the greatest impact. It’s about understanding the customer and their journey with easy step-up and step-down processes between automation and human intervention. So, what limits, if any, should we put on automation and AI in the public sector? We’re looking at ways we can utilise these technologies to benefit the public sector in our new white paper – Changing lives: bringing disruptive technology to local government.

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Helen Rogers

Product director, Capita One

Helen is responsible for the strategic product direction and product management across Capita’s One Housing, Education and Digital businesses. As an experienced Product Evangelist Helen has helped to deliver product strategy and product innovation, as well as drive business and process change in order to provide quality products to customers and prospects with new technologies for over 16 years.

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