Published 01. Mar. 2019

‘Autonomous’, the new shiny layer

Autonomous is the new magic word. The question is whether we are ready for it, as discussed by Ruud Brink of PA Consulting Group.
Internet of Things

As we are gradually starting to learn how to process large amounts of data in an intelligent manner, autonomous systems are increasingly closer to becoming a reality. Intelligent processes are often sold using impressive terms such as ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘machine learning’, with the promise that they will accelerate, enhance and, where possible, fully automate business processes. Insert the adjective ‘autonomous’ before any random word, and that word will turn to gold. ‘Autonomous’ is the new magic word. The question is whether we are ready for it.

Autonomous technology has actually been around for quite some time. As far back as the early 1900s, aeroplanes and boats were being equipped with autopilot systems. For many years now, intelligent digital automation has been used extensively in high-frequency trading and other forms of algorithmic trading. However, in recent years advancements in sensor technology and data analysis have been so rapid that autonomous systems are on the verge of becoming mainstream, which means we need to consider how we want to use them.

A much-discussed autonomous intelligent technology is the variety used in self-driving cars, but the moral dilemma surrounding it has so far prevented a breakthrough. While autonomous vehicles have been proven to drive more safely, the fact that their use could potentially entail an algorithm making life-or-death decisions represents an issue to many people. For instance, if a self-driving car needs to make a choice between the safety of its passengers and that of other road users, where will its loyalties lie? And do we want to start thinking in those terms at all? The fact that autonomous systems are able to do many things more effectively than human beings does not necessarily mean we should leave those things to them.

This moral dilemma has had a paralysing effect. Fortunately, however, there are also applications with which such ethical issues do not, or only barely, come into play. The autonomous supply chain is a prime example of an autonomous system that presents fewer ethical dilemmas.

Intel, Google, 09Solutions and PA Consulting have invented a revolutionary system that tags shipments, enabling them to be monitored and safeguarded across the globe. Those tags also yield data that can be used to chart the entire supply chain. Analyses of that data are used not only for optimisations, but also as a highly effective tool for automated decision-making. The sensors employed are able to register both the location and the cargo. Consequently, if anything happens to the cargo (undesired movements or fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels, etc.), immediate action can be taken. For instance, clients can be contacted immediately, orders can be changed, shipments can be redirected to other harbours, or other mechanisms can be employed to deal with such anomalies effectively. In this way, we are laying the foundations for autonomous organisations.

Currently, 30% of the 76 million packages shipped on an annual basis are damaged in transit, and 30% of perishables never reach their final destination. Autonomous processes can ensure that anomalies in the cargo are dealt with much more swiftly. Immediate, automated, optimal decision-making designed to minimise the impact of loss and damage can yield considerable benefits. At the same time, this combats wastage in the form of lost goods and the energy invested in transport.

Autonomy is the shiny layer that makes technological developments appealing for general use. The adjective ‘autonomous’ implies ease and convenience, promising to relieve us of the burden of tasks we never get around to completing, or simply no longer wish to perform. Technically, we are ready to start developing such applications, but the secret is to opt for solutions that rapidly yield measurable results without burdening us with difficult ethical choices. For this reason, I believe that autonomous supply chains will become commonplace long before autonomous driving.

 PA Consulting Group will be attending Data and Analytics in The Netherlands on the 6th of March 2019.
Ruud Brink

Member of PA’s Management Group – Partner Data Digital