Will the AI-powered workplaces of the future need humans?
Marc Carrel-Billiard, managing director, global technology R&D, Accenture. Image: Accenture

Will the AI-powered workplaces of the future need humans?

21 Mar 201765 Shares

In the first in a new series exploring the future of work with thought leaders, we ask Accenture’s Marc Carrel-Billiard if artificial intelligence will steal our jobs.

March of the Machines: Future of Work series

Theorists, strategists and anyone trying to think ahead regarding trends relating to the future of work are no doubt ruminating on the impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on working life.

Handing tedious, menial tasks over to machines has been a staple of industrial revolution and it continues in the modern age. Increasingly, it looks like the future of work will be highly automated, powered by a new breed of machines that can think for themselves.

In Ireland, global management consultancy Accenture has established an R&D lab at The Dock, its Dublin innovation centre, where the focus of their research is on this very matter. Opened in November 2015, the lab is part of a global network of seven Accenture labs led by Marc Carrel-Billiard, managing director of Accenture’s global technology R&D division.

“It’s probably the best job in Accenture,” he happily told me.

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Putting the AI in teams

Globally, Accenture has been exploring and developing technology for ‘digital co-workers’. It’s now almost a year since the launch of its intelligent automation platform, Accenture myWizard, an assistive technology helping people to leverage AI’s power to analyse data and identify patterns.

MyWizard’s purpose is to take care of task-related work quickly and efficiently, freeing up the human mind for more strategic thinking. There are six virtual agents available to help with duties such as data mining, test planning and tracking product development.

Using myWizard, developers can essentially eliminate repetitive tasks from their workflow, making them – according to Accenture – up to 60pc more productive and available to focus on higher-value work. Satisfied clients have reported thousands of working hours saved per year as well as overall system improvements and cost reduction.

People first

This kind of assistive AI technology has been developed to bring skills that humans can’t match to the table, such as speedily summarising large amounts of data or instantly accessing a vast memory of facts and figures for informed analysis.

Too often, perhaps, the discussion around AI and the future of work is couched in fear. No one wants to lose their job to a piece of technology, though this isn’t necessarily a 21st-century problem. Readily available and affordable alarm clocks put all the knocker uppers out of work, after all.

Even artificial intelligence isn’t all that novel. “To be honest with you, this is not new. [Artificial intelligence] has always been there,” said Carrel-Billiard. The real recent shifts have been in the declining cost of storage and high-performance computing power enabled by the cloud, as well as the availability of big data. All of this combines to enable more intelligent systems. More of an evolution than a revolution.

‘These systems are going to be the co-worker of the digital age and you will have to work with them’
– MARC CARREL-BILLIARD

Carrel-Billiard’s future of work vision is not solely populated by robots. Rather, he sees robots and virtual assistants as a new type of productivity tool, alleviating the load of repetitive, boring tasks while giving human workers the time they need to focus on more interesting and engaging work. Rather than fretting about robots stealing our jobs, what we should be doing is learning to work alongside our new machine-based mates.

“It’s so good to see that it’s coming, but it’s more worrisome to see that people are not ready,” said Carrel-Billiard.

“Look at your people and look after them to help them to get trained to apprehend this change, to learn how to use and to work with intelligent systems. Because [these systems are] going to be the co-worker of the digital age and they will have to work with them,” he advised.

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Trust in AI

Accenture has been a test bed for its own technology in this respect and Carrel-Billiard said staff members were “pretty excited” to work with a digital assistant to test applications in development, allowing them to focus more on the design.

“I know that in some other companies, some other organisations, we would have to train people in order to be comfortable to talk to the system,” he added, citing the unease of workers afraid of teaching a system that could ultimately replace them, as well as a lack of trust that the computer knows best.

‘I still believe that, at every point of time, the human being impacts the final decision’
– MARC CARREL-BILLIARD

“In my view – I’ve been more than 35 years in this business – I still believe that, at every point of time, the human being impacts the final decision,” he said.

Humans are, frankly, more reliable when things start to go wrong. They can make decisions outside of the confines of a scripted sequence. For Carrel-Billiard, implementing automated systems without human co-workers would be like letting planes fly on autopilot with no actual pilot on board.

“Would we remove the captain from the cockpit? Absolutely not. When there’s a situation of danger then, obviously, the autopilot switches off and then the captain takes over. And I think that’s what we’re going to see more and more. We’re going to be using more of machine intelligence to support the human being.”

Updated, Monday, 27 March 2017 at 2.24pm: This article has been amended to clarify that Accenture’s Dublin R&D lab is just one facility located at The Dock, its Dublin innovation centre.

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com. She joined in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs news. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly persnickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen. When she hasn’t got her nose stuck in her laptop, you’ll find her in the kitchen, at the cinema, or on the dancefloor.

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