25 Mar 2018

Insight: Is NZ Ready for Artificial Intelligence?

From Insight, 8:10 am on 25 March 2018


Dire warnings have been made about the impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation on jobs and society. But after being flagged for years, what steps have New Zealand and New Zealanders taken to be ready?

New Zealanders are used to the idea of automation and industrial robots in manufacturing and some homes have those disc shaped vacuum cleaners roaming the house of their own volition in order to keep everything spick and span. Many people have exchanged messages with chat bots online in order to get a few questions answered. But a New Zealand company, Soul Machines, has taken the chat bot idea to the next level and developed so called "digital humans."  

Just over a month ago, the Natwest Bank in the UK started testing an artificial intelligence-powered "digital human" called Cora who will converse with customers from a terminal in bank branches, with the aim of cutting down on waiting times. The bank hopes Cora's artificial intelligence will eventually expand to answering hundreds of different questions, but at the same time insists the avatar is there to complement, not replace humans.

Greg Cross of Soul Machines sits in front of a laptop with the image of the digital human  "Rachel" on screen

Soul Machine's Chief Business Officer, Greg Cross, hopes digital humans will step in where there are shortages Photo: RNZ Insight/Philippa Tolley

Cora is a British sounding version of a digital human created by the Auckland based company, Soul Machine. She is based on a real New Zealander, Rachel, who is an avatar engineer with the company. The sky is almost the limit for this type of technology in the eyes of the chief business officer, Greg Cross. Not only is the company developing digital humans for customers such as the automotive industry and the banking and finance industries, but he can see the technology helping  in a wide range of areas such as specialist teaching in more remote places and medical services.

"Maybe AI in combinations with our digital humans can provide a level of service and a level of knowledge that previously people just haven't had access to because nobody wants to provide those services or can afford to provide those services."

Worker Demand

Worker Demand Photo: Supplied/MBIE

Work is going on at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to try to work out what sort of jobs there might be for humans in the future, how many people might be in employment and what businesses and policy makers need to start thinking about.

Augmented workforces, AI, robots and multiple employers are all on the cards according to Ruth Isaac, MBIE's general manager of Labour Market Policy. But she also acknowledges changes are need to make sure people can be protected and help to find their way through the predicted changes.

MBIE graph

MBIE says it is likely that in the future people will work for more than one employer. Photo: Supplied/MBIE

"As we're seeing more and more people be in non-traditional working environments, we need to think about how do we make that work for workers, whether they are contractors or employees, whether they have 5 employees or own their own business on the side. those are the types of things that are already causing strain in the system. You hear people talking about the precariat, the vulnerable workers in our system... if we expect that group to potentially get bigger then we need to make sure our frame work caters to them as well."   

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Group of 11 and 12 year olds stand on edge of school field

Whanganui Intermediate students. (from left) Piper Kenny 11, Philip Dale 12, Victoria Arrowsmith 12, Stella Ridgway 12. Photo: RNZ Insight/John Gerritsen

But thinking about what's to come is a challenge not just for adults, but children as well. Among a group of  11 and 12-year-olds from Whanganui Intermediate their thoughts range widely on what they might be doing in the future.

Piper Kenny is keen to be a baker, as she loves making things and sharing them with others. But she can see that technology might make the job obsolete. Although he has loved being a student leader and now wants to be primary school teacher, Philip Dale, also fears the job may disappear altogether into some sort of on-line learning.

Stella is opting for more than one career by selecting graphic design and the ambitious aim of being a cruise ship owner. But already she worries her dream of taking people to places they have never seen before, might not come off and it's not because of the costs of owning a cruise ship.

"In 10 or 15 year's time there's be virtual reality, so they won't need to go on a cruise ship, they'll be able to have the full experience with their goggles and that's really sad," she said.

On the positive side, Victoria Arrowsmith is confident her current chosen profession,  psychologist, will prove to be future proof.

Grant Robertson, Minister of Finance opens the books after the election. Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update 2017.

  Grant Robertson said NZ can't afford to leave people behind in the technological change Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

While the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is resolutely upbeat that New Zealand will be able to seize the opportunities and manage the risk, he acknowledges there are some who are likely to struggle as technology's presence increases.

There is a group of people who if they don't have resilient and adaptable skill bases, will get left behind. We can't afford that. We're aware of it. It's critical to the programme and the only way we can begin addressing it is by accepting it's a reality.

Insight has also visited the Ports of Auckland where driverless container carriers will be introduced next year, meaning 50 positions will go. The Port is aiming to re-train the stevedores who will no longer be driving.

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