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A robot called Pepper has given evidence in Parliament, answering questions from MPs on artificial intelligence (AI) and how ‘technological innovation’ will affect workers.

It said that robots would play a key role in the future of the workplace, and new research by Close Brothers shows that SMEs are already embracing this change.

Results from the most recent Close Brothers Business Barometer suggest that companies are beginning to adapt to high-tech progress and use AI to their advantage. However, as Pepper the robot pointed out the ‘soft skills’ that are unique to humans will always be needed, and employers should invest in people, as well as technology, to avoid widespread staff displacement.

The fourth industrial revolution

Earlier this year, Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, said that artificial intelligence would transform the business and jobs market.

Considering the impact of automation, Haldane suggested that it has the potential to exceed the disruption caused by previous industrial revolutions, including the introduction of iron, coal and steam in the Victorian era. Talking about the possible impact of technological unemployment, he said:

"[The] hollowing out [of the jobs market] is going to be potentially on a much greater scale in the future, when we have machines both thinking and doing - replacing both the cognitive and the technical skills of humans.

“What we can I think say with some confidence […] it is likely to be at least as large as that of the first three industrial revolutions. We will need even greater numbers of new jobs to be created in the future.”

Artificial intelligence today

According to Close Brothers Business Barometer research, over a fifth of firms are already using some artificial intelligence, such as chatbots and automated processing, and ten per cent class themselves as dependent.

A further ten per cent said that they planned to start using AI in the following 12 months and nearly a quarter said they expected to invest in the next five years.

These findings highlight how quickly new technology is becoming a mainstream professional tool. Over a third of SMEs are early-adopters, and many are planning to follow in their footsteps. Such growth is unprecedented by previous industrial transitions and presents a challenge of its own. It is vital that firms take both a short and long-term view on this issue and participate in the internet of things.

Question: Are you currently using artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning processes in your business?

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Yes, we are dependent on AI 10%
No, we use some AI 23%
No, but we plan to invest in the next 12 months 10%
No, but we expect to invest in the next five years 24%

New skills create new opportunities

This rapid acceptance of digital developments in the business world combined with The Bank of England’s caution emphasises the impact that AI and machine learning could have on small and medium sized operations with employees. While there will likely always be a need for human judgement, it is important to ensure that workforces are developing skills to complement new technology.

David Thompson, CEO Close Brothers Invoice Finance, commented:

“Employers investing in staff training today are likely to be rewarded in the future. Businesses that thrive in the technological age are likely to be those where data and connectivity is understood by all, from younger generations who are digital natives to longstanding employees who can provide valuable insights into internal workings.

"Industrial transformations can bring significant opportunities as well as challenges. It is important to consider the future and prepare for changes by investing in both technology and staff.”

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