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Time for a human-robot alliance in public services?



Analysis: Combining people and robots in integrated service teams was one of the ideas to emerge from UKAuthority’s recent Return of the Bots conference

Are robots going to replace humans in the public sector? It’s a widely asked question, and one that underpinned a lot of the discussion at UKAuthority’s recent Return of the Bots conference.

It reflects the widespread concerns over a strong downside to the development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI); and it has caused plenty of anxieties in the public sector since the prediction a year ago by thinktank Reform that AI could replace 250,000 of the workforce over the next few years.

Plenty of the conference talk revolved around dealing with the disruption, and the fears of employees, in introducing the technology. The upbeat perspective was that it could often be possible to convince people that increasing the use of bots and robotic process automation would free up people for more creative work; but against that is the view it can only lead to a big reduction in headcount and is bound to provoke stiff resistance.

One of the recurring suggestions was to start talking to frontline staff early in the process, being honest about the change, pointing to the opportunities and providing the chance for them to develop the new skills. This can bring them onboard with the change, and draw them into the design of how things will work.

Something better

“If people feel there is something better on the other side you will release a lot of creativity in improving services and reducing costs,” was one of the comments on the day.

It also gives rise to the strong possibility of service teams that include bots and humans, with the former handling the more routine tasks and providing the information for humans to make the more sensitive judgements. It would involve identifying the areas in which human skills add value to a process.

This could well be the direction in which many organisations head. It will not require a big leap in the dark to begin using bots, and if public service leaders demonstrate at an early stage that there will still be areas in which people surpass the capabilities of AI, especially in providing emotional intelligence and more nuanced judgements, they are more likely to win the enthusiasm of key employees.

Realistically there will be job losses on a significant scale, but teaming humans with AIs could lead to a more socially acceptable vision. It would give organisations the chance of reducing the headcount through natural wastage, and ambitious employees an aspiration in proving they can acquire the skills for more rewarding roles that, hopefully, take them up the pay scale. It could also be conveyed as the next step in the natural evolution of using technology in public services, and make the change more attractive to the public.

Public acceptance

Of course, public support over the long term is going to depend on the quality of services, but this is where basic advantages of robotics and AI come into play: the capacity to process huge volumes of information at speed, provide 24/7 customer service, and improve consistency and reduce errors in data. Also, people are getting used to bots in commercial services – just look at the increasing use of Amazon’s Alexa through its Echo devices – and this is creating a mindset that makes it more acceptable in public services.

A strong perspective to emerge from the event was that it’s not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’ and ‘how’? Teaming up humans and robots could be the decisive step in taking it forward.

This was just one of the themes to emerge from the discussions at Return of the Bots. To learn more you can download the briefing with a more extensive report on the proceedings from here, and visit the event hub for a comprehensive view of the presentations.

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