artificial intelligence

Maltese businesses should start setting money aside to invest in automation and AI “immediately”, say experts on the technology, who warn that they will likely have a lot of catching up to do as companies abroad are already investing heavily to capitalise on the advantages it offers.

Back in 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes argued that by 2030, people would have far higher standards of living than they did in his time while working much less due to the increasing power of technological automation.

His prediction was not quite on point, but the important role automation plays in production continues to hold true, with new technology stretching the limits of its potential ever further.

Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have brought machine capability closer to that of humans, surpassing them in some cases. However, AI-assisted automation is typically deployed by large companies that can capitalise on its advantages at scale – and that can afford to make the investment.

BusinessNow.mt reached out to three leading local players in the automation space to learn more about the most interesting developments currently taking place, the benefits and risks to watch out for, and what Maltese businesses can do to maintain their competitive edge.

Revolutionary potential

Renaldo Arciola, co-founder and CEO of Fonicom, an IT systems integrator and managed systems solutions provider active in Malta, India and The Netherlands, highlights medical automation as a particularly exciting and rapidly developing field.

Renaldo Arciola, CEO, Fonicom

“Automation can be used to help analyse medical data and provide insights that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to find,” he says, pointing to the roughly 1.5 billion people without access to basic healthcare to argue that remote diagnosis of diseases, especially infectious ones, could provide a big boost to global health.

Bernard Mallia, CEO of Equinox Group, active in business advisory and education, also highlights the medical potential of automation, arguing that the repetitive and rules-based tasks that take up so much time for doctors and nurses are prime candidates for automation.

“In healthcare, there are many tasks that can be automated using a robotic process automation (RPA) approach. Consider, for example, the task of updating patient records with new information. This task can be automated using a bot that reads new information from incoming documents and updates the patient records accordingly.”

Similarly to Mr Arciola, Mr Mallia sees the diagnosis of illness as an area where automation can prove very useful, and says that this can be done by using an AI bot that reads the patient’s medical records, X-Ray and/or MRI scans and compares them to a database of medical records, diagnosis and verified illnesses.

He goes even further, describing how prescribing treatment may also benefit from an automated approach, with a bot reading the patient’s medical records and comparing them to a database of known treatments, recommending the treatment that is most likely to work for a specific patient.

Other areas where automation can make a big difference, they say, include cybersecurity, banking, education and space exploration.

In the realm of cybersecurity, automation has been used for years, but it is now becoming even more sophisticated, according to Mr Arciola.

“This kind of technology is especially important when you consider just how many people are affected by cyberattacks each year: according to McAfee Labs’ 2019 Threats Report, there were 665 million new malware samples discovered in 2018—and nearly half of those came from business email compromise (BEC) attacks alone! That’s why we need automatic detection systems that can keep up with the ever-changing nature of cyberattacks and their targets.”

Bernard Mallia, CEO, Equinox Group

As for banking, Mr Mallia says that things like processing loan applications and customer complaints and credit scoring could quite easily be automated with currently available technology. Meanwhile, tasks that require a certain level of procedural cognition, like fraud detection, could make more use of AI to read customer transaction data in real time and looks for patterns that are suspicious or indicative of fraud.

Tyron Lloyd Baron, founder and CEO of InboundMuse, which designs and develops technical architectures, points to ‘human-in-the-loop’ AI for education, with classroom aids calibrated for each individual in class, as another promising application, and even touches on its extraplanetary use, noting that the first image of a black hole was captured with the help of AI.

While dreaming of space, Mr Lloyd Baron’s business primarily relates to FinTech, logistics and hospitality, where automation is all about offloading critical analysis tasks away from human operators who are prone to human error, fatigue and bias.

“I think across industries, the key process is the same – surfacing the right insights at the right time with actionable recommendations for human experts to act on,” he says.

Automated business

Asked to what extent they see automation being integrated into businesses’ daily operations within the next five years, all three say that the technology will become much more mainstream in business circles.

Mr Arciola says that as people get more comfortable using it, there will be a shift away from asking “Should we automate?” and toward asking “How should we automate?”

He argues that the days of all-or-nothing implementations are over: “Instead, we’ll see a more gradual adoption as companies incrementally add automation to existing processes. This approach has several advantages: It allows you to test new technologies while they are still in development and provides you with more control over the implementation process.”

He also predicts that automation will become more accessible to smaller businesses and startups: “Today, when you hear about automated systems, you may think of large corporations with deep pockets that can afford expensive solutions. But as machine learning becomes less costly and more accessible, automation will start showing up in smaller companies and startups — even those without dedicated data scientists on staff.”

Mr Lloyd Baron meanwhile says that at the current rate of acceleration, he can “easily imagine the technical emergence of the first sophisticated autonomous organisation – decentralised (DAOs) or otherwise”, although he concedes that this greatly depends on the stance governments take, individually and collectively.

Tyron Lloyd Baron, CEO, InboundMuse

Mr Mallia on the other hand focuses on the local scenario, describing Maltese organisations as ones that retain a very traditional outlook on business, with some very notable exceptions. “There will be a lot of quick catching up to do,” he says, “as their international competitors will have better capabilities and a lower long-term cost base that will result in an existential challenge to Maltese companies that might have ignored the threat that competitors making better use of automation will give rise to.”

“However,” he continues, “it has to be said that Maltese companies have always risen up to such challenges fast and that even though past performance is no guarantee of future performance, when the threat becomes clearer they will rise to the occasion and do what they should have done over a decade in a mere year, even though this is not ideal as it ends up costing them more. We’ve seen this in digitalisation in the context of Covid, and I believe we’ll see it again with RPA, Robotic Process Orchestration (RPO), AI and Machine Learning (ML).”

Risks and benefits

Automation can be very beneficial by improving the quality and efficiency of business processes and making them more flexible and cheaper, improving quality by eliminating human error and improving consistency across processes. However, it also carries risks.

Mr Mallia points out that automating certain tasks could lead to job losses in some sectors as machines increasingly take over human tasks, although he says studies show that as old jobs become redundant, new jobs that are free of boring routine will become available.

“These are also likely to be better-paying,” he says. “From a business perspective, the real pertinent issue is how to retrain people to move away from obsolete jobs into new ones while capitalising on the experience that those people have gathered in other parts of the business. Here, resistance to change is a very normal response and it has to be managed as any other management issue.”

Mr Arciola adds that since automation requires fewer workers than manual processes, it could result in less innovation because people with different backgrounds bring new ideas that may not be discovered otherwise.

Meanwhile, Mr Lloyd Baron argues that when done well, automation is “the foundation of what allows us to progress by moving what was once difficult into the realm of the routine or even mundane, and letting us move on to the next piece of the puzzle”, while acknowledging that processes, no matter how cleverly designed, and even if they learn from their environments, “are forever imbued with their creators’ bias, leading to any number of unforeseen and unintended consequences”.

Mr Mallia also cautions against dismissing the impact of regulation on the development of technologies, noting that AI and the areas it depends on “are becoming very highly regulated at European Commission level”.

‘Start investing now’

Turning to the importance of automation in today’s economy, all three described it as essential for success.

“In some areas automation will make or break a business,” says Mr Mallia. “In industries where there is a perpetual first-mover advantage, the business who moves first on an area will be able to gain long-lasting dominance in the market it operates. In other areas, where first-mover advantage might not be that important, a business that fails to move first might be able to catch up very fast, given the right capital investment plan in automation.”

He continues: “What is sure is that irrespective of whether businesses want to start investing in AI now or in five years, it is important for them to start setting the money aside to invest in that area so that they do not find themselves lacking capital when the moment comes. Starting investing right away, if done wisely, will mean that the proverbial low-hanging fruit will be picked first and that the savings that these low-hanging fruit will provide will be able to finance progressively higher-hanging fruit.”

Meanwhile, Mr Lloyd Baron believes that “we have already reached the limit of what human-centric siloed systems are capable of. The amount of available data across channels is only going to become more complex so that integrations and process flows can only get even more tightly integrated and automated.”

Finally, Mr Arciola says that IT, the sector his company operates in, is one of the most dynamic, most complex, and most difficult to manage industries in the world, and automation plays a critical role in its effective operation.

“Put simply, we just can’t survive without automation,” he says.

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