Ask Amelia: how cognitive robots are part of a digital revolution for business

Whether you are ready or not for it, technologies are being developed faster and faster every year. But are the firms prepared to use them?

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The latest news about the tests of autopilot cars in the UK give us the clue that the things we have seen in sci-fi movies are becoming reality.

The development is increasing exponentially, so now we are seeing the fastest changes (for now). Companies change not only the ways they communicate with their clients and stakeholders, but also the methods of delivering goods and service. Moreover, some things that are at the base of building business are being changed due to new technologies.

According to David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect, everything is influenced by technologies now. Ford takes up selling computers with wheels as cars, and Mckinsey implements consulting boxes. We can no longer separate the companies that are traditional and technology-influenced, as it’s all the same now. And the businesses that aren’t ready for that yet are better get prepared in order not to become outdated.

Every business is becoming a tech company, software house or data repository. As companies rise to the challenge of keeping up with the pace of digital transformation, if companies are to survive and thrive they need to be aware of how fundamentally this changes their opportunity-risk matrix. Legal risks are mutating in this changed environment. Businesses need to run very fast just to keep up.

Many of the developments we are talking about may sound like concepts from a science-fiction novel, worthy of I, Robot creator Isaac Asimov. But the truth is that the future is right here, right now — and businesses miss this point at their peril.

We already have computers that can emulate human thought processes — in fact that can even program themselves (cognitive artificial intelligence such as Watson and DeepMind is already here). We have robots that can provide a better interface with the public than their human counterparts: the London Borough of Enfield’s “cognitive robot” council worker Amelia being an iconic example, designed to make decisions and track human emotions — and being far more accurate in the information she disseminates to local residents.

Indeed this is a story that is not confined to any one sector; it applies to businesses across the board.
● To take a simple example: how driverless car technology is challenging automotive manufacturers with the conundrum of whose fault it is in law when something goes wrong. Is it the computer programmer’s? The manufacturer’s? At what point does a human driver have responsibility to wrest control back from the automaton when something goes wrong? At what point do they concede liability if they fail to do this?
● Now let’s look at another sector: the use of drones in construction projects is becoming commonplace, the “drone’s eye view” replacing the classic “bird’s eye view” in construction parlance and greatly reducing the labour and time involved in producing accurate surveys; not to mention the use of virtual reality to enable potential property purchasers to view real estate without leaving their homes/desks, and to take a tour of a site the exact same time someone else is doing the same, negating the need to schedule separate appointments.
● And another: the financial services sector is adapting to change by embracing “fintech”. Examples include new encryption technologies around bitcoin (a virtual currency to facilitate trading online) and blockchain (in short a public ledger for transactions where each step is recorded in a separate “block” that is validated and linked to the parties’ proven identifies to avoid fraud and provide a permanent, traceable record). This is driving a need among the big financial players to collaborate with newer more tech-savvy, non-traditional partners.

Whether through M&A activity (ie, “buying in” the new skill-sets they need); or through joint ventures; or via looser business collaborations; the reality is that the financial sector is having to open up to relationships with very unfamiliar entities. And of course with unfamiliarity, comes increased business risk. Are they addressing this in their contracts? Is the commercial world ready?

In truth, ready or not the digital revolution is already under way and the pace of change will only accelerate. The question is whether businesses are going into it with their eyes wide open. It’s not a matter of preparing for futuristic change coming down the line. The future is here. And businesses need to make sure they have all their bases covered.

Peter Dickinson is co-head of the global business, technology and sourcing practice at Mayer Brown

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