Flexible Workers, AI Keys to Future Success, Accenture Predicts

  • Accenture CTO: `There's a first-mover advantage here'
  • Companies must invest in AI, training, platforms, says firm

A robot holds a newspaper during a demonstration during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos.

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Companies that want to prosper should spend more to educate their workers, try to restructure to use more freelancers and tap into artificial intelligence to automate routine tasks.

That’s the prescription for success from global consultant Accenture Plc in its annual technology report released Tuesday outlining some of the trends that will shape businesses in 2016 and beyond.

New capabilities made possible by smart software, a more flexible -- some might say precarious -- workforce, the arrival of platforms such as Uber Technologies Inc.’s global logistics infrastructure and the digitization of new industries, are helping businesses achieve more in a faster time with fewer resources, Accenture said.

“There’s an array of new technologies that can be used to change and transform work in a way we’ve never been able to do before,” said Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s chief technology officer. “I do believe there’s a first-mover advantage here.”

Seventy percent of business executives plan to invest more in artificial intelligence than they did in 2013, Accenture reported, as companies seek to make their employees more efficient by augmenting them with powerful software. For instance, Accenture used automation technologies “to replace the work of about 10,000 people” last year, Daugherty said, and re-assigned these employees from repetitive tasks to tougher jobs. It also joined with a global manufacturing company to augment its low-skilled workers with virtual reality, precision laser and machine learning technologies to let them make far more complicated items than they’d been able to produce previously.

Some companies are already taking advantage of these technologies: e-retailer Amazon.com Inc. is building a new 30-minute delivery service that uses drones to ship goods from a warehouse to a customer; Uber has hired roboticists to help it build self-driving cars to further cut its transit costs; Google has plugged artificial intelligence technologies directly into its search engine; and industrial robotics maker Fanuc Corp. has joined with a startup to augment its canary-yellow machines with thinking software.

Accenture’s predictions are based on research conducted by the international consultancy, polls of staff, the input of “hundreds” of its researchers around the world, the work of a year-round team of about two dozen people and a survey of more than 3,100 IT and business executives, he said.

“Right now a lot of companies are viewing this as an add-on,” he said. “I believe what we’re going to see in the next few years is the AI techniques we’re talking about will become a part of the standard stack of a business’s IT architecture.”

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