The robots are coming and the world of work is set to change forever: recent research from consultants PWC estimates a third of existing jobs are susceptible to automation, due to the use of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030.
The survey adds more weight to a fast-growing body of work on the impact of AI. Take KPMG's recent global CIO survey in conjunction with recruiter Harvey Nash, which found almost two-thirds of CIOs are investing or planning to invest in digital labour, which broadly covers robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.
A quarter of these technology chiefs have already see very effective results. The survey suggests digital leaders are investing in digital labour at four times the rate of other executives. These CIOs are also implementing digital labour solutions across the enterprise, in some cases at twice the rate of their less-pioneering peers.
However, it is important not to overemphasise the pace of change. Lisa Heneghan, global head of KPMG's CIO advisory practice, says we are still in the early days of AI. Digital leaders are using robotic process automation to deal with repetitive manual processes, such as claims processing and data entry. Heneghan says spending decisions around more advanced digital capabilities, such as machine learning, are still to be made.
"We're seeing pilots and small amounts of investment, but that's not where the money is now," she says, referring to the CIO's role in assessing AI. "We're seeing CIOs start to focus on building centres of excellence around digital labour. When they build this centre, it enables CIOs to look at the opportunities from digital across their business."
First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins, for example, has created a customer-driven approach to data analytics and continues to look for new ways to help his business grow through technology, including via AI and automation. Wilkins says that, to remain competitive, his organisation must continue to innovate through information.
It is a sentiment that chimes with Brian Franz, chief productivity officer at Diageo, who has responsibility for the firm's shared services around the world. His chief priority centres on driving efficiency and effectiveness in a sustainable manner -- and that work aims to makes the most of advanced technology, including AI.
"We've started using robotics in some of the processes that we run in shared services where we have a level of confidence that we'll be successful," he says, referring to the firm's initial forays into automation. "We're looking at AI in some experimental ways in terms of how we interact with consumers and how they interact with our brands."
Mark Ridley, group technology officer at venture builder Blenheim Chalcot Accelerate, is another CIO who is keen to establish how machine learning and automaton might be used within the IT department and out across the wider business. For now, Ridley says AI is a great way of making many decisions quickly.
He expects that focus to remain until businesses start seeing the benefits of developments in deep learning. "That will obviously take a few years to become pervasive. But when it does, AI will start making trivial decisions instead of humans and that will be very interesting," says Ridley.
"That level of development will have a huge impact on work. How do we, as senior managers, deal with a society where human input isn't necessary for simple tasks? The combination of AI and robotics represents a very interesting area to consider when it comes to the future of humanity."
What is true, therefore, is that the various flavours of AI will have an impact on the way that businesses and their employees work. Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, also believes the biggest short-term impact of AI is likely to be confined to the rapid completion of routine tasks.
Yet there is no room for complacency. McMahon says AI will eventually create a seismic shift in business operations and CIOs must build awareness. "I cannot stress enough the importance of putting the effort in now to give your organisation tangible competitive advantage in how it can use or acquire these technologies," he says.
Other lines of business executives have a role to play, too. Peter Markey, chief marketing officer at TSB, is at the vanguard of digital marketing and has spent his career melding business data with customer requirements to help create innovative services. He expects AI to offer similar opportunities for CMOs, but agrees there is much work to be done.
"I love the idea but I don't think we've really explored its full potential or limitation. Marketeers need to strike the balance between business and personal. Do you lose something by automating a marketing programme within an inch of its life?" says Markey.
"Machines will get better at learning but I don't see a day where all interactions are replaced by AI. We could get close, of course. The key to how far AI develops in terms of marketing is understanding your customers' demands and how they want to interact with your business."
Scope CDO Mark Foulsham is similarly customer-focused and believes AI could help his charity make smarter decisions. He believes developments in machine learning and automation run alongside attempts to exploit big data. The charity is not using AI currently but Foulsham expects the organisation to take advantage of the technology as it develops its data insight strategy.
"There's huge potential," he says. "All charities are speaking to customers and donors across several channels. What they need to provide is a seamless and transparent experience across those channels."
AI, says Foulsham, can help charities to take a more proactive approach. He anticipates a situation where AI technologies work in the background and help senior managers at charities to make timely interventions and to boost the level of service provided.
"As executives, we need to know how customers are acting," says Foulsham. "We need to know what their needs might be and we need to make sure that they have a seamless experience when they connect to us, be that through web, mobile or whatever platform they choose to use. AI provides another potential means to that end."