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Articles IT & Data 11th Jan 2018

Robots: much more than a compromise

Digital transformation is a compromise: a cheaper, but poorer, alternative to human-led services.

This has been the perspective of many people I have encountered in the public sector. And I have some sympathy with this argument for a number of reasons.

For a start, the drive to digital has been an explicit response to the extraordinary cuts faced. It has naturally felt like compromise; worse, that compromise has often been very real. The results of digital transformation projects have sometimes been poor. They have happened at a direct and measurable cost to services, but also at a less visible cost to flexibility. There’s very little ‘give’ in a digital system, when the computer says ‘no’.

Now is the time to rethink this attitude. We need to look afresh at the next generation of technology coming in to the public sector. We’re approaching a point where technology, and particularly various types of robotics, is no longer a cost-driven compromise. It could actually help us to deliver services better than humans ever could.

To back this up, here are three examples, one from the contact centre, one from the back office, and one from a care context.

Sometimes, humans prefer robots

The first example is Amelia, the artificial intelligence that I was loosely involved with helping Enfield Council to procure last year.

Amelia is a learning system. That means it can digest information from natural language and then create answers from what it learns. It is not like a chatbot where you have to define every step in a particular workflow – every possible branch in a conversation. Amelia understands the meaning of questions and finds the answers from its base of knowledge.

In a demonstration I hosted, Amelia’s makers used the iPhone manual as the source of that knowledge. Amelia starts knowing nothing, just an avatar on a screen with a blank text box. But two minutes later Amelia confirms that the information has been digested. From this point on, it – or now ‘she’, the avatar – can answer natural language questions about any of the information.

Q: “Why isn’t my phone charging properly?”

A: “Common causes of battery issues are…”

She speaks, and she writes. And she answers 80% of queries first time. But what’s most confounding to expectations, and to anyone who has interacted with prior generations of voice system, is that people prefer dealing with Amelia to human interactions.
Why? She’s quick and efficient. Sometimes, you’re dealing with things where a human on the other end isn’t an advantage. Rent arrears, for example.

Machines talk data

The second example is of a much less anthropomorphic robot.

I’ve seen multiple situations in councils where human beings have been engaged to make connections between disparate systems and silos in an organisation. I called my local council once to report that the cycle path I used each day was getting heavily overgrown, was an inch deep in slippery fallen leaves, and increasingly interrupted by fly-tipping. This was apparently a ‘complex query’ so I was directed from the website to the call centre. There I had to spend over half an hour on the phone while the poor recipient of my call had to work her way through three different IT systems – and two different mapping interfaces – in order to report my three issues.

When I was working with Enfield we had a hypothesis that callouts to environmental health might be an early indicator of an adult social care problem. But we couldn’t test this easily because the data for the two services was in completely separate systems. And if we had wanted to act on it, without major investment it would have meant Janet from environmental health having a chat with Bob from adult social care*, if she thought there was someone that may need checking on.

A robot doesn’t have this issue. Because a robot can natively speak data, it can communicate with two disparate systems and look for correlations, even without any formal integration work. In the most extreme cases it can even pretend to be a human with a screen, keyboard and mouse, if there’s no other way to access an ageing system. A robot could operate across three systems simultaneously, in real time. It could test hypotheses across disparate systems, and perhaps even start to come up with its own.

Can robots care?

The third potential application for robotics is perhaps the most controversial: in an adult social care setting. The idea of this, imported from Japan with its impending demographic crisis, horrifies many. Surely robots can’t care? They can’t show empathy?

My argument is that perhaps they don’t have to. I’ve been observing my children’s interactions with robots for the last few years, from home built things that waddle around and make rude noises, to Amazon’s Alexa and most recently, Cozmo. What’s clear is that each of these devices has quite a rounded personality and a very rich appeal. But that’s not a factor of the technology, however clever or otherwise it might be: it is projected onto these devices by my children.

The number of marriage proposals received by Alexa, around half a million when I last spoke to someone from Amazon about it, suggests that adults also anthropomorphise even faceless machines. Combine our imaginations with the capability to track our health with ruthless efficiency, and you potentially have an incredible tool for preventative medicine and light-touch remote care.

Awake to this possibility, Aylesbury Vale council has already created its own ‘skill’ for the Alexa platform.

More opportunity than threat

None of these things is a direct replacement for a human being. But we can also no longer afford to look at them as a poor compromise. Even if there were to be some radical political reversal in the near future, something that looks increasingly likely with every government own goal, we shouldn’t abandon the opportunity that robots present. The opportunity to do things better than we alone ever could.

*These names are entirely fictional

Written by Tom Cheesewright


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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