Image to support blog on AI and robotics

Rise of the machines or endless potential?

picture of Ken McGrath, Head of Government Sales at eir Business

Ken McGrath


What does the public sector of the future look like? Ken McGrath, head of Government at eir Business, looks at the rise of AI and robotics in the public sector and the benefits and challenges that presents.

There’s no doubt that recent reporting on robots and the future has ushered in a little bit of hysteria about said robots stealing our jobs and replacing humans in certain roles. What most people don’t realise is that robots are already all around us; just because a supermarket’s self-service checkout doesn’t have eyes, doesn’t make it any less of a robot. They’re already embedded in organisations across Ireland and the world, helping them to work smarter and more efficiently.

AI and robots in action

In the University of Limerick, for example, robotic assisted surgery is in full swing. Doctors there are using the DaVinci robot to perform colon, rectal and kidney surgeries. Robotic assisted keyhole surgery is the most advanced form of keyhole surgery available to patients. And this precision surgery is also helping to speed up recovery times: preliminary data from UL Hospitals Group revealed that post-operative recovery is twice as fast with robotic surgery than with standard keyhole surgery.

We’re also seeing drones become a more commonly used resource for emergency services such as the Coast Guard, the Garda Siochana and the Civil Defence and are proving particularly useful for searching tricky terrain and remote areas. In a recent interview West Cork Civil Defence Officer Niall Twomey called them a “game changer”.

And chatbots, which have been primarily used in the private sector to date, are now making their presence felt in the public sector. In fact, a report by Reform thinktank in the UK suggests that chatbots could replace up to 90% of the UK government’s administrators by 2030 – saving as much as £4bn a year.

And the UK isn’t unique in recognising the potential benefits of AI and robotics. In the US, according to Accenture analysis, key clinical health AI applications have the potential to create $150 billion in annual savings for the US healthcare economy by 2026.
But it’s not all about financial savings, by automating administrative tasks, like passport applications, motor tax renewals and TV licence payment, the public sector can enhance the delivery of services and can use intelligent systems to fill gaps in the labour pool. Advanced, context-aware, chatbots with an added emotional intelligence layer, can intuitively interpret tone, making for more satisfied citizens.

Who will manage the robots?

For the public sector in particular, fully embracing AI and robotics is challenging. There has been a notable ‘brain drain’ within the public sector, that when coupled with the difficulties in recruiting so-called Millennials, means that there is a significant skills gap. Who will build and maintain these intelligent systems?

It will be interesting to see how public sector organisations bridge that gap. Will we see a reinforcement of the public-private model, or will innovation and the adoption of the ‘gig economy’ of more flexible working practices, make the public sector more attractive to highly-skilled job seekers?

Humans and robots working together

Despite all the advances of AI and robotics, human contact will still be necessary, as I experienced recently in a mad panic to renew a passport for one of my children. In what I call typical ‘Irish style’ myself and my wife left it to the last minute to renew our child’s passport before a family holiday. When we realised our error my wife donned her cape and high-tailed it into the passport office – for her, in that moment, the fastest way to fix this debacle was to deal with a person directly. Her super hero-esque trek was for naught though as she was directed back to the online passport application system. So much for proactivity, huh? It all ended well though; when we actually sat down to use the online system we found it to be intuitive and efficient and the passport was renewed in time for our family holiday.

What I found most notable about this incident was my wife’s natural ‘solve the day’ instinct was to deal with a human being. However, when we do find ourselves in this situation again – and believe me, it will happen – our first port of call will be the online system. Or better yet, the system will have been enhanced with AI that will alert us in a timely manner that our passports need to renewed, and who knows, in 30 years’ time, it could be my personal assistant robot who will be looking after all of these administrative chores.

But for now, we’re still a far cry from the Hollywood-inspired intelligent robots that we’ve seen in films like Ex Machina and the TV show Humans. The European Union only this year began talking about AI and robotics in earnest. It wants to develop an environment where, rather than replacing humans, robots would help humans so that they can focus on the essentials. And that’s most likely going to be what the future looks like: AI and robotics enabling humans to work smarter and more efficiently.

The good news is we will be hearing all about the innovation and possibilities that are on the way in the area of AI and robotics at the Ireland eGovernment Summit, which is taking place on 26th May 2017.