No sooner than Prof Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicist of our time, warned in a BBC interview that the development of 'thinking machines' poses a threat to the very existence of the human race, two big corporations have announced that they are about to deploy artificial intelligence software in their back offices to replace white collar workers.
The FT reports that Baker Hughes, the oil services group, will start a trial in the next few weeks of a 'virtual assistant' affectionately called 'Amelia' to deal with vendors about payments and invoices. Early next year, Royal Dutch Shell, will begin piloting software to assess what training its employees need simply by trawling through the internal database used by them. Shell already uses 'intelligent' software to monitor its rigs and write automatically safety reports.
Cognitive computing is nothing new. There is great interest in using it in highly regulated and data rich sectors like financial services, healthcare and education. Today, a computer can safely diagnose a medical condition much better than the average GP. The role of the conveyancing solicitor can safely be outsourced to a computer. Millions of people already benefit from 'virtual' tutors in cyberspace.
Predictions suggest that nearly half of all jobs in the US and one in three jobs in the UK are likely to be replaced by automated services in the next two decades.
So who should really be afraid of 'Amelia'?
Politicians in the UK have already outsourced responsibility for economic forecasting to the cumbersomely named Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in an attempt to avoid getting the blame for getting the figures wrong. 'Amelia' is ready to take charge of the Office. It's only a matter of time.
Another technocratic entity, the Bank Of England, has been outsourced the task of managing the monetary policy, including the setting of interest rates, and the wider regulation of the financial sector, something in the old days was done by politicians. However, politicians can be sacked by the electorate, the Governor of the Bank of England can't. If the bank doesn't meet its targets, politicians can wash their hands like Pontius Pilate and say 'Not my fault gov!'
The newly appointed governor, Mark Carney, declared earlier this year at the TUC congress in Liverpool in a typically fuzzy way that the role of his institution was to promote 'the good of the people of the United Kingdom'. But targets like inflation, growth, banking stability, etc. are notoriously hard to manage without political interference. If you want to avoid political meddling in the running of the economy, put 'Amelia' in charge.
So if politicians are absolved of many responsibilities in connection with the running of the economy, what about their jobs?
Yes, that exotic animal, the career politician, who has never worked outside in the real world but follows the well-trodden path from school and a top university to researcher, special assistant and political secretary to parliament, usually through a 'safe' seat. Then, if you are lucky, a place in cabinet.
This entity speaks a robotic language, it is well versed in parliamentary procedure and his or her head is full of weird terminology, rules and regulations. Career politicians beware, Amelia is ready to take your job! She can give straight answers to straight questions. So, what is there for you to do?