This picture taken on September 27, 2016 shows Toyota Motors' new communication robot 'Kirobo Mini' on dosplay during a press preview in Tokyo.
Equipped with artificial intelligence and a built-in camera, the robot is capable of recognising the face of the person speaking to him and responding in unscripted conversation or even starting a chat. / AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURATOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Delegates at an event hosted by Accenture last month in the Conrad Hotel in lower Manhattan were welcomed and registered by a smiling Amelia. But Amelia does not work only in events. She is a hologram — a cognitive agent who can take on a wide variety of service desk roles, emulating human intelligence and capable of natural interaction with people.

The age of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) has been predicted for decades — and it may finally be arriving, thanks to the explosion in data, the fuel that powers the AI machines.

Consulting firms are not only implementing automation and AI for clients but also using it to transform their own back-office functions and operations. It is a shift that might soon affect their strategy work, too.

Amelia, developed by New York tech company IPsoft, is one of a team of intelligent virtual agents that Accenture is using to assist its human employees via machine learning.

Together, they manage projects, apply analytics to hit targets, and make judgment-based decisions. The “scrum master” agent, for example, monitors Agile development project software, alerting the project manager to potential problems and providing possible solutions.

The “data scientist” agent helps identify data patterns and mines information to help consultants and their clients make more insight-based decisions.

Over the past 18 months, Accenture estimates that it has automated 17,000 tasks and roles, saving it around 20m hours of work per year. Rather than using automation to cut jobs, Accenture has put staff to work on higher value tasks, explains chief technology officer Paul Daugherty.

“So, for example, in finance and accounting, we’ve been able to automate a lot of the invoice processing, approvals and other manual decision-making and free up those people to do higher value advisory work, like doing better analysis of spending patterns rather than simply processing transactions,” he says.

“Intelligent augmentation is the way we think about equipping our people. We want to be a firm of people with deep specialisations, augmented by the right tools,” he adds. “We want to use the technology to allow people to do their jobs better and live their lives better.”

According to analysis by Deloitte — using research by Oxford Economics as well as a study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford university — only 7 per cent of management consultant and business analyst jobs are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years. In comparison, 35 per cent of jobs overall in the UK are at high risk.

However, one of the consequences of the introduction of AI into consulting will be greater clarification of consulting methodologies, predicts Harvey Lewis, Deloitte’s UK artificial intelligence lead in technology consulting. There will be repeatable, common approaches that are supported by machines, and then a class of essentially human approaches for dealing with more varied, wide-ranging and uncertain problems.

“Consulting firms have a lot of intellectual property locked up inside their consultants’ heads, which, if codified and converted into algorithms, can be used by computers instead,” he says. “This will allow computers to work on the repeatable consulting tasks by following prescribed methodologies, while the human consultants are freed to work on those projects where inputs, outputs and outcomes are more uncertain or which require greater creativity, subjectivity, social interaction and perceptiveness or human judgment.”

If consulting can be codified then the cost of performing certain types of consulting work is likely to fall, says Mr Lewis. This means that consulting can be offered to more organisations, such as start-ups, small and medium enterprises and charities that might not previously have been able to afford consulting services.

However, AI could also have a significant impact on the way strategy consultants do their job.

“The days of old-style consulting, where the work was centred around a bunch of people mulling over a PowerPoint presentation and analysis for the client, are either dead or dying fast,” says Mr Daugherty. “Increasingly, strategy consulting is moving to fast-paced database analysis, supported by machine learning. Clients will want us to arrive, ready to load in their data, understand the situation and particular dynamics of their business and provide insights on the first day of the project.”

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