New technology has always been greeted with mix of excitement, suspicion and fear. The ‘luddites’ of the early 19th century rebelled against automation of the weaving process because they saw only the downside – their jobs disappearing leaving them without a way to support their families.

It’s no different today. Change is emotionally challenging, or to put it another way, scary. The problem with this attitude is that it’s like King Canute – the sea just keeps rolling in.  Sooner or later, leading edge technology is refined, becomes mainstream and is adopted by the mass market tanks of the benefits it delivers. Then unintended consequences emerge and have to be addressed with recent online thefts of high volumes of data from Equifax and Russia’s alleged influence on the last US presidential election through social media being two high profile examples.

Forrester predicts that 25% of tasks across every job category will be automated by 2019. Ibid forecast the role of robotics to grow significantly – in 5 years, it will have grown by 63% in Manufacturing & Production. And this trend is not going to stop. “People are driving it; we are writing it, building it and maintaining it. AI systems will bring huge opportunity over the next 15 years.” Dr Vishal Sikka, CEO, Infosys.

Fear of the impact of technological innovation on job security is not new. In the 1930’s, economist John Maynard Keynes coined the term ‘technological unemployment’ to describe the potential of technology to displace jobs. However, although new technology may make some roles redundant, it can also change the nature of existing jobs and create new ones. Accountancy is a profession facing huge challenges as a result of AI / automation. One story I heard, anecdotally from a partner in one of the Big 4 firms was of a 17 hour long manual process that has been reduced, using AI, to 4 minutes. This releases trainee accountants from hours of mind-numbing work, but what does the firm do with this talent that has a huge amount of time freed up?

Negative news sells, so there is much coverage of the downside of AI / automation. In these uncertain times employers are struggling to define the workforce of the future, and employees are worried that the workforce won’t include them. We can be certain that automation and AI will displace non-cognitive, routine jobs. This will lead to firms needing people but perhaps on a project basis – by gig – and will, equally, mean that finding and keeping the right people for the job will get harder because the best will always be in demand. To quote Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Socos…”In the future workforce, human talent will dramatically increase as a differentiator. Motivation, sense of purpose, creativity, ability to self-asses and be strategic.”

So, if the change is inevitable, it’s incumbent on employers to look for opportunities to free up their people from the mundane so they can be creative, strategic, forward thinking. This means outsourcing monotonous, manual and repetitive tasks to technology and finding new ways to gather information, analyse and use it to develop new services that meet the changing needs of the consumer and are delivered through new jobs being created.

The railway industry is often seen as slow to take on new ideas and, in particular, technology that affects working practices and employment. The slow adoption of single driver trains – need I say more.

The same technology can be used in different ways. 

Drones are a great example of a technology that started with one aim – surveillance in war zones – and has now morphed into multi-purposes including supporting agriculture, search and rescue, movie making, and rail.

Many of the limitations – needing a dedicated, trained pilot and observer, or not having enough battery life to carry out major tasks – have been overcome, making them potentially the best way to inspect rail infrastructure and support asset management. Inevitably, the next generation drones will make it safer, quicker and easier to survey and assess vital civil infrastructure such as bridges and railways. And they will bring massive efficiency savings in time and money compared to physical inspections by staff, and greater safety in environments where the hazard of moving trains is never far away. According to the ORR, there were 175 major injuries reported on the mainline network in 2014-15, a figure everyone wants to see reduced to zero.

More efficiency means less disruption to passenger and freight services. Inspections can be quickly repeated at just the touch of a button, multiple data can be captured through ground penetrating radar, high definition video and photogrammetry, infrared, thermal and light detection and ranging sensors. All of this builds a fuller, more in-depth picture of the situation that enables better informed decision-making from which the best action can be decided. This helps to solve the problem first time with potential future issues being identified so they can be addressed cheaply before they escalate.

Building trains that think 

The marriage of AI and industrial engineering – or industrial IoT (Internet of Things) – is having a growing impact on operations, employment and the global economy. In the US, freight locomotives designed by GE can have over 200 sensors streaming data to machine learned analytic apps that process one billion instructions per second. In effect, the train is a mobile data centre with physical, high definition cameras that capture the track, front and back. The data is aggregated and analysed immediately enabling real-time decision-making on the locomotive itself. Much of the on-board analytics is dedicated to the same things as automated car sensors – identifying signs and scanning for obstacles, in this case, on the track and, vitally, defects in the track that could lead to derailment.

Data is analysed at their Global Performance Optimization Centers (GPOC) where predictive machine-learned algorithms build strategies to optimize everything from fuel use patterns to maintenance schedules. Improving the estimated time of arrival for freight is vital – it means the recipient is ready with the right equipment, workforce and trucks when the freight arrives.  Unmanned or drone trains are common in remote areas of the USA, and in yards where they can be controlled from a handheld remote control unit. The next stage is to integrate silo applications so that they deliver a broad and deep picture of the state of play to the user – and in visual form. Importantly, with self-driving trains, it’s not about trying to cut the whole crew, instead, with automation and a single-person crew, a highly trained workforce can be distributed more effectively to where they are most needed.

Making maintenance predictive 

Predict and prevent asset monitoring and analytics should now be considered part of most operators’ digital strategy. The benefits include reduced in-service failures, maintenance interventions and lower costs. The goal is to eradicate delays and cancellations caused by faulty or ageing infrastructure and to reduce the need for people to repair assets on the track during operational hours. Equally, digital reporting from train to depot is growing because, once again, the benefits are significant with the maintenance team being ready for the tasks that have been identified, which increases the speed of repair and reduces turnaround time to getting the train back into service.

By knowing when an asset is moving towards end-of-life or is becoming faulty, it can be repaired or replaced in advance of outright failure and the disruption that causes. This can be bogies under the train, facilities on the train (such as pre-built toilets that can be dropped in position), and assets on the track. Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) and Intelligent Infrastructure systems has been around for some time and are used extensively by operators, and it’s easy to see how further development will aid decision making and more effective and predictive maintenance services. Which in turn leads to the delivery of better customer services.

Robots are amongst us already  

Today, there are many examples of robots taking a more active role with the general public. East Japan Railways has announced the creation of JRE Robotics Station, a company that will design robots to help travellers navigate train stations and get to their trains on time. Robots will be used to haul luggage, assist lost travellers, clean floors and catch shoplifters in train stations. This is part of a trend to using robots to help make traveling safer, and maybe even more fun, through robots giving a helping mechanical hand. Critically, they never get ill, don’t lose their patience and will work 24/7 – from the company and customer perspective, what’s not to like?

Elsewhere, Keikyu Railway has deployed a 1200 mm high humanoid robot attendant to greet passengers at Tokyo Haneda Airport station, while SNCF has deployed similar robots at three stations in the Pays-de-la-Loire region under a pilot programme running until March. The robots are from the Pepper range developed by SoftBank Robotics and Aldebaran. Pepper is designed as a ‘social robot’ able to use a 3D camera to understand facial expressions, body language and speech to recognise and react to emotions.

According to Aldebaran, Pepper is intended as ‘an emotional robot’, rather than a functional one ‘with dishwasher or vacuum cleaner functionalities’, and ‘has been created to make people happy to interact’. Keikyu Railway’s robot can converse in Japanese and English, and is fitted with a screen which provides a welcome message and passenger information in Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish.

SNCF’s trials began at Nort-sur-Erdre, followed by Les Sables d’Olonne and Saumur. Custom applications for the French trials were developed by a Lyon-based software company Hoomano designed to ‘empower the first interactions that consumers will have with a humanoid robot’, according to Aldebaran.

Taking people on the journey 

As we’ve seen, not just in the financial world, but across industries this trend is unstoppable. Where human ingenuity and creativity married to AI analytics – what is called centaur intelligence – is going to prevail is unclear. Hence, the difficulty is predicting the role humans will have at the bank of the future – or indeed in any industry. Part of this challenge is trying to envisage just what AI might be capable of in even a few years’ time. The pace at which machines are mastering erstwhile human-only skills is amazing.

If the benefits of automation are obvious, there is a need to decide which processes can be automated at low risk, i.e. avoiding those where there is a high level of subjectivity, complexity or variability, and where human understanding and judgement cannot be replaced, e.g. around moral, social or ethical matters.

Let’s not forget that all computers operate on the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ principal. So, people are key to the successful introduction and use of AI / Automation.  A major challenge is its introduction without alienating employees. A core message therefore needs to stress not just the benefits to the organisation (greater efficiency, increased productivity, better service to customers, lower costs aiding market competitiveness), but the benefits to employees – release from boring repetitive tasks to work on more complex, intelligent stuff with simplified workflows and processes.

Hence the need to take the workforce along the journey and core to this is having a clear, strong communication strategy that addresses the impact of business change on organisational culture.

Digital Railway – it’s not just about the technology

The Network Rail vision of a Digital Railway is forward looking. However, to gain the benefits of digital technology, we need to work collaboratively. We need to learn from other industries such as automotive, aircraft and  telecommunications. Which in turn means collaborating with employees to identify how AI/Automation can be used and the impact it will have in each area on the people and processes currently in play. This means not just identifying the benefits to the organisation, but working out how the time saved can then be utilised for the benefit of both employer and employee. New personal development, training and coaching programmes will need to be developed with constant monitoring of the impact changes have on efficiency and individuals.

This is an amazing time with great challenges and opportunities, and how people react to change driven by technology will be influenced by how its managed. And that involves all of us.