Police drones, robo surgeons and chatbot civil servants. What could go wrong?

Reform outlines chilling vision of future in wonky research

A think tank is calling for hundred-of-thousands of UK public sector jobs to be automated. Blighty should also take a look at using drones for policing, apparently.

The report, Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce [PDF], by centre-right wonkers Reform reckons up to 250,000 state employees in Britain could be replaced by robots.

Chatbots could shave off around 90 per cent of the total number of Whitehall admin workers by 2030 - and save £2.6bn a year in the process - it claims. A further 90,000 NHS admin and 24,000 GP reception jobs could be automated in the same way, saving around £1.7bn.

It’s not clear how Reform arrived at these figures, but it did cite a Bank of England calculation that 15 million jobs in the UK economy are at risk of automation. "Applying this data to public services reveals significant opportunities for the automation of tasks," it said.

Elsewhere it quotes a number of research papers and appears to give a superficial interpretation of a number of AI research claims.

One chilling paragraph reads: “Various companies aim to develop artificial intelligence that can diagnose conditions more accurately than humans. The UK should evaluate drones and facial-recognition technology as alternatives to current policing practice, while recognising concerns about the holding of people’s images.”

It also pointed to HMRC having reduced its numbers of administrative staff from 96,000 to 60,000 over the last decade through expanding online services and providing better real-time information. However, it failed to mention a number of customer service issues related to that move highlighted by the National Audit Office.

According to stats from notable blood-suckers consultancy McKinsey, 30 per cent of nurses’ activities could be automated.

Reform said: “Even the most complex roles stand to be automated. Twenty per cent of public-sector workers hold strategic, 'cognitive' roles. They will use data analytics to identify patterns – improving decision making and allocating workers most efficiently.

“The NHS, for example, can focus on the highest risk patients, reducing unnecessary hospital admissions.”

It alleged on page 40 of the report that IBM’s "Watson is already, IBM claim, better at diagnosing lung cancer than humans, with a success rate of 90 per cent, compared to 50 per cent". Yes, the sentence ends there. The article it had cited, from 2013 issue of Wired, had a rep from American private healthcare company and IBM partner Wellpoint saying that "in tests, Watson's successful diagnosis rate for lung cancer is 90 per cent, compared to 50 per cent for human doctors".

And in a particularly nightmarish vision of the future, Reform said surgery is another area on the verge of being disrupted. “Autonomous robots, such as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, have already outperformed human surgeons in routine procedures,” it said.

It vaguely recommends the government "should move from hierarchy to 'self-management', with teams organising themselves around tasks that need to be done. Whatever that means.

“The Government Digital Service (GDS) has done this to great effect, such as when a 16-person team designed GOV.UK in 12 weeks. Other departments and arm’s-lengths bodies – from the Crown Commercial Service to the National Crime Agency – could follow," it said.

El Reg wonders if think tank reports and research consultancies ought to be automated, too. ®

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