The recent news that the UK is to be the testing zone for Amazon drone deliveries should leave no one in any doubt that the age of intelligent automation is well and truly upon us.

So, what is intelligent automation? It is the use of machines made smart by the use of data and artificial intelligence, from driverless cars to smart thermostats (and drones, of course). It has been hailed as a potential breakthrough in tackling big social problems, from healthcare to climate change. But it could also help small businesses to get ahead in today’s digital economy.

Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication, and the associated technologies of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), form the backbone of a very important leap forwards. Although M2M is not really new, its combination with IoT and the arrival of more sophisticated (and affordable) AI systems is set to create a new era of opportunity.

Imagine having two or three extra pairs of ‘digital hands’ to help you around the office? Intelligent automation helps businesses become more productive, with robots or software performing some of the work quicker and more efficiently than humans.

To help deliver food and collect dirty plates to overcome manpower shortages, restaurants in Singapore are already using drones and robots as mechanical waiters.

Robot co-workers

Intelligent automation isn’t about machines taking over the world from humans, as we’re still a way away from any computer passing the ‘Turing test’: Alan Turing’s definition of AI, in which a machine could trick a human into thinking it was another human by the responses it gave.

An intelligent machine still requires being set up and trained by a human, so that the machine collects the right data and then makes the right decisions. Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat chess world champion Garry Kasparov, couldn’t beat a five-year old at draughts unless it was programmed on how to play the game.

IBM’s Watson AI systems are delivering very sophisticated and affordable logic engines through the cloud, while the brainpower that is now available to the sensor-driven process networks of M2M and the IoT is truly groundbreaking. Learning machines will be here, and soon.

But to reap the benefits of Big Data and the IoT, businesses must be able to process and make sense of the enormous volume and complexity of information that is constantly being produced. That means re-skilling your workforce, and intelligent automation can help that to happen, by being what Accenture refers to as ‘the essential new co-worker for the digital age’ in its Technology Vision 2016 report. 

Intelligent machines can perform labour intensive, unskilled processes quicker and more efficiently than humans, thus freeing up people to concentrate on more high-value work. By using robots and drones, the Singaporean restaurants are able to use their human workers to help prepare food and mix cocktails rather than waste their time collecting dishes from the kitchen or clearing up dirty plates.

Early adopters of intelligent automation may steal a march on their rivals, predicts Accenture: ‘As intelligent automation applications set new standards of quality, efficiency, speed, and functionality, companies that successfully employ it may surpass competitors that do not.’

Embracing change

Small business owners will have to get their heads around intelligent automation, not least because (as I’ve written before) if your firm is part of a supply chain your end-client is already likely to be looking at how it can use intelligent automation to improve its processes.

If you’re not willing to embrace this new technology then your business is likely to become uncompetitive, even obsolete in the not too distant future. So, you’d better start getting to grips with it, or start planning your exit strategy – fast, because there aren’t many industries that won’t be susceptible to automation.

But a lot of small firms are enthusiastic adopters of new technology. They’ve already realised how innovations like computer-aided design software and 3D printing can give them an edge. As AI applications and robot technology become more affordable then they will be increasingly within the price range of small businesses.

That said, my three greatest fears regarding intelligent automation are:

  • robots need very intelligent programming
  • firms using it need good data disciplines
  • any network today is inherently insecure

Having masses of sensors attached to networks will only increase these problems.

Security will be an immediate issue, because the IoT – which mainly provides the framework through which intelligent automation works – creates potential security vulnerability that hackers can exploit if you’re not careful.

So too will making sure you’re feeding the right data to your intelligent machines so they can make smart decisions – as the old saying goes: ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. As I’ve mentioned before it’s imperative that every small firm learns to harness the power of data locked within its business, either by assigning someone to do it from within your firm or by hiring a consultant.

Soon I expect to see these three related technologies – M2M, the IoT and AI – make a huge difference to the world. Intelligent automation isn’t part of a sci-fi story – it’s here now. It could be the difference between your small business being at the forefront of the digital revolution, or your small business worrying if it’s about to face the guillotine.