IPSoft's Amelia

Two of the world’s biggest oil and gas groups are set to deploy artificial intelligence software to do the work of back-office accountants and call-centre workers, in the latest sign that white-collar jobs could be under threat from the rise of smart machines.

Baker Hughes, the oil services group, will start a trial in the coming weeks of a virtual assistant known as Amelia, which will answer queries via instant messenger from the company’s thousands of vendors about invoices and payments.

In February, Royal Dutch Shell will also begin piloting the software, built by US company IPSoft, to digest information in an internal database used by employees to figure out what training is required across the organisation. The company already uses software from Arria NLG, a London-based group, to monitor its rigs and automatically write safety reports.

“The basic platform for rendering services is shifting — it used to be ‘Let’s replace labour with cheaper labour’. Now it’s ‘Let’s have labour augmented by software’,” said Chetan Dube, IPSoft chief executive.

He added that two global asset management groups and a large US media company were also due to roll out Amelia next year.

Cyrille Bataller, head of the emerging technology group at professional service firm Accenture, who is leading the projects for Baker Hughes and Shell, defined such systems as software that could “sense, comprehend and act”.

The pilot programmes were “a safe environment” in which to “test the capabilities and then look at broader operations”.

Companies are showing a growing interest in so-called “cognitive computing”, including in sectors with highly-regulated and complex operations such as financial services, healthcare and education.

The rise of cloud computing and “machine learning” techniques have made this possible. The twin trends enable systems to access and crunch large amounts of data, and also learn from mistakes.

But there is increasing concern about whether intelligent systems will augment human abilities or render workers irrelevant. Many economists and analysts believe that lower-skilled workers, including those whose jobs involve repetitive calculations and clerical tasks, are at the gravest risk.

Nearly half of all jobs in the US are likely to be automated in the coming decades, according to research from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford university. A recent report by Deloitte, the professional services firm, suggested that one in three jobs in the UK could be swallowed up in the next 20 years, particularly those in office administration, sales and transportation.

But Alexander Linden, analyst at research group Gartner, cautioned against the “notoriously inflated expectations” in the area of intelligent systems that can answer human queries. He said that while they could analyse relationships within a body of text, there was “no notion of understanding” because of the software’s limited ability to appreciate context and to reason.

Baker Hughes and Shell declined to comment.

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