Lunch debate: How will AI and automation affect North West workforces?
As a growing number of North West businesses turn to machines to support their workforces, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are becoming an integral part of our professional lives. Move Commercial assembles a panel of experts to discuss the pitfalls and possibilities these disruptive technologies present.
Curated by Mark Langshaw
Neil Mort director, CBRE
John Flint partner – commercial & private litigation, Clarke Willmott Solicitors
Dr Steve Davis lecturer in manufacturing, automation & robotics, Salford University
Glyn Powditch CTO, Dream Agility
What are the main implications of introducing AI and automation in the workplace?
JF: In terms of the legal sector their strengths lie in their ability to streamline processes, reduce costs for the end user and bring us more intuitive analysis. I’m a litigator and we use AI when we need to review a large amount of documents. In the past this meant mass recruiting paralegals which is an inefficient process – it’s time consuming and costly, and it’s difficult to consolidate each individual’s knowledge for analysis.
NM: I think one of the biggest areas of impact is on, with all due respect, lower-skilled professions such as paralegals, so there’s the issue of how they need to reskill to re-enter the business.
JF: Yeah, I think that’s a challenge AI presents. It is removing the need for more mundane tasks to be carried out by humans but the important thing for the North West is to find ways of reintegrating people into the economy in different ways. Our big advantage over AI is our ability to use our brains and we should be working in roles where our skills can be applied.
SD: I think you’re exactly right on that point. AI is very good at pattern recognition and repetitive tasks but the creativity and imagination is not there. These are skills that we bring which machines are unable to reproduce at the moment. That human factor is difficult to replicate.
“Humans are very good at taking abstract principles and black swan events like the financial crash into account, while machines struggle to incorporate them.”
To what extent are AI and automation putting jobs under threat in the North West?
NM: It’s nothing new, is it? AI is another disruptive invention that has made life easier for people. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, machines came along and made certain professions obsolete. People had to reskill and that’s what will happen with AI.
JF: We shouldn’t see it as a threat. We need to deal with it and find ways where AI can help our businesses evolve. It’s a collaborative approach and is not meant to be a threat. If we view it as a threat we are going to be left so far behind that it’s going to become an academic exercise in the future because there will be other countries stealing the ground from beneath our feet.
SD: We have seen it before, not just with the Industrial Revolution but also with the computer. It replaced the typewriter in many instances but that didn’t result in mass unemployment. We all have different skills now.
GP: It can be a hard sell to businesses in certain sectors. Those who think of our product and services as pure automation tend to feel threatened by it while others think they can beat a machine at certain tasks, but that’s simply not true. On the flipside, you still need humans to actually guide the machines and this is the future of many businesses. Humans are very good at taking abstract principles and black swan events like the financial crash into account, while machines struggle to incorporate them.
Will the rise of automation and AI result in smaller workforces in the future?
JF: I think it will result in a different type of workforce, not necessarily larger or smaller. Businesses will evolve to do more things and this will help them advance more quickly and should help us find more avenues of work. We may be working in a different way – less nine to five, more agile working, working from home or hot desking – but nobody is going to complain about the loss of a call centre or a warehouse full of people packing fish fingers.
SD: And as I mentioned before, all of this new technology needs people to support it. For all of the unskilled jobs it puts under threat we’re creating new ones in manufacturing, tech support and programming.
GP: AI will likely result in an expansion of the knowledge worker economy. People with STEM degrees will probably do better than ever before when they enter the workplace, while those who graduate with ‘soft skills’ may start to struggle. I don’t know how easy it will be for some of these people to reskill because many are never going to be interested in maths or optimisations. You can’t necessarily force yourself to embrace these subjects or go back to them midway through your career path.
NM: In Manchester the creative industry makes up 15% of the pie. It was around nine or 10% only five years ago, so you can see how these companies are growing, and we need these creative industries to develop this AI. This is a big sector in the UK and it will continue to grow, so it’s clear some businesses may actually have a larger workforce.
What effect is the emergence of these technologies having on office take-up in the region?
NM: I think in 15-20 years it will have a major impact on the type of space businesses need. Space is changing all the time for occupiers. You see a lot more collaboration areas and breakout facilities in modern offices. The workplace is changing without AI, but I think these technologies will take that to a different level. Some businesses are heading for a predominantly online future, particularly in the digital and creative sectors – look at the likes of Autotrader. Many of these businesses only need space for designers and app developers.
GP: This is happening now. We realised our sales team was spending a lot of time following the same process again and again, searching for potential clients through the same system. Although this can work, it’s such a scale game – we’ve now automated a large part of this process so one room in our office is just full of machines performing analytics for us.
JF: AI will enhance our workspaces going forward. Companies will be able to adopt more biophilic designs and more intuitive ways of working, and I think people will respond to that. The office environment of the future will look very different from today’s. It has already changed considerably when you think about it – we’re not stuck in cubicles anymore. They are opening up now and people want light and natural elements – AI will bring further change in this regard.
NM: Advancements in AI and automation don’t necessarily mean smaller office spaces in terms of square footage. Going back 10 years or so professionals in a sector like legal would have their own offices, but now it’s mostly open plan with collaborative spaces. The amount of required floorspace is the same but it’s less insular now. These technologies have forced us to rethink how we market properties, however, as landlords have to look at office space differently. Much more must be set aside for collaboration and breakout areas. Occupiers are keen to ensure that their space reflects where they are going as a business.
Are there any industries which are immune to the effects of these technologies?
SD: I don’t think any of the creative industries will be using this technology on a significant scale anytime soon. Innovation is not what AI does – it’s good at solving specific problems through set procedures but thinking outside of the box is not its strong point.
NM: Certain job roles are immune to an extent. AI is unable to take human behaviour into account. If I’m negotiating a property deal for a client, they have their views about what that deal should be, I have my views and whoever we are negotiating with has their own views on the outcome. These views can change all the time and there are other factors to take into account – what sort of space is the occupier looking at? Can we mould the deal to reflect the fact that they are desperate to secure a premises? There are always different factors in your own mind that change on a daily basis which AI cannot pick up on. That’s the art of negotiation and I don’t think a computer can do that.
SD: Any role involving innovation is relatively safe. There was an article a couple of years ago about a piece of art produced by a computer. There was nothing truly innovative about it – it looked at work from a number of artists, learned their style and used that as inspiration. Is it really creative? Probably not. The computer merely analysed patterns and replicated them, while a good artist would produce something original.
GP: Yeah, I think the future for any job that can be easily automated is going to be machines, but they will always struggle with anything which requires a modicum of creativity.
“Businesses need to recognise the fact that adopting these technologies is an imperative, not an option, and the ones that embrace it sooner will be at the vanguard moving forward.”
How should businesses be preparing for AI and automation to gain prevalence?
JF: They need to recognise the fact that adopting these technologies is an imperative, not an option, and I think the ones that embrace it sooner rather than later will be at the vanguard moving forward and steal a march on everyone else. It will affect every part of our working lives.
NM: We were talking earlier about how AI and automation is putting the so-called lower skilled jobs at risk, so people in those kinds of professions will need to retrain and acquire skills that a machine cannot replace.
SD: I’ve done a lot of work with the food industry because there are a lot of food manufacturers in the North West looking to incorporate automation. A lot of these companies were outsourcing work, but embracing automation has actually helped them save jobs. They need to make sure there are people on site who can deliver and provide maintenance for these technologies.
NM: It’s like Amazon, isn’t it? The way they deal with logistics now is different to the way they would have 10 years ago. They have robots that pick and place, and that’s made the process more streamlined, but this has created jobs because they had to bring in a team to maintain the machines.
GP: I think most savvy businesses are already preparing for this. A lot of the entry-level legal roles are making way for machine learning tech, so businesses in this sector and the others that have been disrupted have to ask themselves ‘if we were going to start our business from scratch today, how would we go about it?’ They need to overhaul from the ground up with the latest tech in mind.