The future impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation is currently a cause of significant debate. For most, the understanding of robots and AI is drawn more from culture than fact. Science fiction tends to portray automation as robots that mimic our movement and language, however the bulk of everyday robots don’t look or sound human. Many will be specialised devices not dissimilar to those we use today, such as packing toys for shipping or welding on a car door.
Most automation won’t even have a physical presence, existing as lines of code that control self-driving cars, your stock portfolio, or as personal assistants replacing Siri, Cortana, and Alexa.
Impact on us
The impact on society, work and whether the effects will be positive or negative dominates discussion. 36% of the British public believe that the development of AI poses a threat to the long term survival of humanity and 4 million private sector jobs in the UK are estimated to potentially be replaced by robots in the next decade.
But what about the impact this may have on us as human beings? As Andrew Murray (LSE) points out, using intelligent devices changes the way humans think and make decisions. We retain less information, outsource the storage of data to our devices, and these external devices increasingly filter the information provided to us when we make a decision. In other words, we trade some of our autonomy for convenience and a perceived “fuller picture”.
I remember marvelling at my granddad’s ability to remember everyone’s phone number (friends, family, lawyers, bankers, the corner shops, the list goes on) well into his 80s — I now only remember mine (and in a rehearsed sequence) thanks to contacts.
What to retain and what to discard has in the last few decades moved from being purely a human decision to one where what to value and be presented with is increasingly influenced, if not decided, by algorithmic design or machine-learning systems.
Impact on design
The implications for experience and service design are enormous as businesses navigate the opportunities and limits in what customers are prepared to trade away for convenience and ‘informed decision-making’, what capabilities they should invest in to be efficient and deliver behind the scenes what customers now prefer to ‘outsource’, and what are the limits (practical or self-imposed) of automation.
As the recent RSAxGoogle report suggests, jobs are multifaceted and made up of a basket of tasks, with only some being automatable. Much also depends on the business strategies of retail companies — where they prioritise cost savings, we can expect many retail jobs to be lost to AI and robotics. Where they pursue a strategy centred on customer experience, greater emphasis will be given to person-to-person interaction.
We have a choice
Indeed, the two strategies do not have to be mutually exclusive, as Laura Alber at Code Commerce recently shared, you can reinvest these cost savings into areas of interaction, curation, and communication in order develop over the long-term a critical point of distinction to the experience and service you offer.
Examples include Apple’s retail stores, that have multiple staff on hand, tutorial theatres, and events, which Angela Ahrendts touted as the company’s “largest product” during her first keynote appearance last month or the current trial by Lloyd’s Bank, in response to banking moving online, to reimagine the retail branch concept with cafes and co-working space. An interesting counter-example is the recent backlash to Bodega and how it reveals that people value corner shops not just as places of transaction, but also of human interaction.
Greater automation is coming, there’s no doubt about that, but businesses will succeed by recognising what is most human in their interactions with customers. Whether the long term impact of automation is positive or negative for businesses will mostly be guided by the emotional intelligence with which it’s applied — something the algorithms can’t help with (yet).
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