Editorial: What is 'automation' and will it affect me?
Automation: it might be the buzz word of 2017. But what does it really mean?
To be honest, there are a number of applications for the term, and in different industries automation can mean very different things.
Is it a robot? Kind of. Is it a process? In some instances, yes. But generally, automation is the blending of technology within our lives, in a way that mimics and starts to understand human behaviour.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines automation as “The use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility.” But that might be a little narrow as, in the tech world, automation is moving quickly into the realm of artificial intelligence, with makes the OED’s version seem a little ‘dumb’.
Here is a quick user’s guide to automation in 2017.
1. Email and marketing
Here, automation is very much centred around campaigns. Software is now smart enough to know if you’ve opened and email and whether you’ve engaged with a service.
A great example might be a gym. The system knows that it’s been six months since you last swiped your membership card at the front desk.
Accumulated data shows that (maybe) 68% of members who have not visited in 90 days will attempt to cancel their membership. The system auto-generates an email to lures you back – say with a 50% discount on a massage.
When you return to the gym, the system loads your discount into the POS system at very the moment you swipe your card at the entry. You work out, enjoy a rub, and feel refreshed and committed to your membership.
This shows the depth at which the software can work to anticipate human behaviours and protect the revenue of the business. Similar systems exist in online retail (prompting you on items you may have left in a cart before deciding not to purchase), or sending targeted ‘specials’ based on your shopping behaviour (through campaigns such as ‘Fly Buys’)
2. Home assistants
These objects are an extension of the personal assistant that resides on your phone (the most famous being ‘Siri’). The idea is that home assistants are always-on-always-listening to give you quick responses to requests such as “What’s the temperature today?” or “Play me 10 tracks by Lorde” or “Find a recipe for pavlova.”
How comfortable you feel about having an internet-connected speaker constantly eavesdropping on the activities in your home is entirely up to you. Given the fallout of the Snowdon leak, some customers may not be excited to invite the NSA directly into their living room.
What’s clear is that these devices are going to provide a hub for the Internet of Things that is beginning to encroach into our homes. You will shortly be able to set heating and cooling levels, turn on lights or activate the oven from your smartphone and via one of these units.
In this context, automation is about personalisation and comfort. The machines will learn about you and your habits, come to understand different people’s needs simply from the sound of their voice, and adapt the surroundings to suit.
3. The White Collar impact
Since the days of Henry Ford, blue collar workers have felt the constant threat of robots taking their jobs. However, it’s proved difficult to produce a robot that can efficiently lay brings or laying electrical cable through a new building.
Where the big changes are happening is at the top end of town.
Billions of financial transactions occur every minute (Wall Street effectively runs on a series of algorithms), JP Morgan can now do in seconds the same amount of work that legal aides used to take hundreds of thousands of hours to complete.
Lawyers are next in the firing line – the argument being that, once all precedents are loaded into an algorithm, decisions should be rapid and reasonably accurate. The Courts might find themselves to simply be a place for review in rare cases where the decision is not as refined. But, once reviewed, the decision is returned to the algorithm in order to improve the next similar decision.
The savings and efficiencies for these sorts of businesses and institutions are massive. In 20 years’ time, what it means to be a lawyer or an accountant be something very to what it does today
These are just three examples of how automation is changing the way that we work and play. While there is plenty of hype in this area, the idea of having the fridge order your groceries for the week still feels as unlikely as a truly paperless office.
Autonomous cars are a great example of how lives can be improved through progress. Safety improves, environmental impact is lessened, and time is saved - all through implementing automation to a traditionally manual process.
Technology is a balancing act. The art is in manging the space between what is possible and what is actually wanted. All you really need to know is that the future is arriving a lot faster than you can imagine.