Dr Harry Woodroof has an intriguing background. Having studied no less than four degrees (BSc Physiology, MSc Ergonomics, MA Defence Studies and a PhD on Human response to vibration), for ten years he worked as a government ‘futurist’ or ‘horizon scanner’, looking for emerging trends and developments – particularly in science and technology – and producing insights about how they might affect the UK and its organisations.
In January 2016, Harry took up his current post as Head of Personnel Research at the Royal Navy, where he leads a team of occupational psychologists to conduct surveys, research and studies into the selection, recruitment and retention of Naval personnel.
As with any emerging technology, the future of artificial intelligence in business is by its nature difficult to predict, so AI Business were keen to ask Harry to scan the horizon and provide his insights – not only from a public sector and military service perspective, but also as a leading figure in personnel research.
Dr Harry Woodroof, Head of Personnel Research, Royal Navy
Harry is assured that AI’s impact on the business world will be all-encompassing: “Nearly everyone’s tasks, roles and jobs will eventually be altered in some way”, he says. But there is an important distinction to be made in the type of tasks and roles. “Those involving information handling and applying routine cognitive processes to information will change soonest, while any task based on managing social relationships or empathy will be much less susceptible”. This, he notes, has “big implications” for his current work in the selection, recruitment and retention of Naval personnel at the Royal Navy, since “leadership, motivational and coaching skills will increasingly come to the fore”.
What stands in the way of this widespread adoption, then? As a mark of his profession, Harry is focused on the human challenges. “I think the lack of awareness about AI’s potential is a major barrier. Although I think many senior people are aware of AI and automation, I think the majority of those lower down don’t yet recognise its importance, particularly how it may affect white-collar jobs. So there’s a great need for clear simple messages to explain the importance of AI and white-collar automation, and its potential as a fast-approaching disruptive technology”.
With much discussion around AI applications in the private sector enterprise space, it was refreshing to hear Harry’s thoughts on what AI means for the public sector. “AI has just as much potential to change tasks, roles and jobs in the public sector as it does in the private”, he says. The role of the government in this regard is unique. “As with any new technology, Government’s role is not only that of an employer. It can also be active in convening a wide range of stakeholders to help form partnerships across industries and academia, driving consultation, and being a major customer and investor as well as, if appropriate, a regulator and legislator”. The same, he believes, is true of military services: “I see no fundamental or unique barrier to AI and automation impacting the military in many of the ways it is already starting to change business”, he explains. But there is a line to be drawn: “Legal, moral and ethical issues will, quite rightly, prevent our Armed Forces from delegating the final decision to kill or harm an opponent to AI”.
So what does AI mean for the Royal Navy? “At present, the Royal Navy’s focus is on introducing AI and unmanned systems into the ‘sharp end’: warfighting activities such as mine-hunting and surveillance, both on, above and below the surface. We have some systems already in service, and are actively exploring the potential for other applications through a series of regular exercises and experiments, involving both the military and industry”. But looking ahead to the future, Harry sees AI impacting the military in similar areas to private sector businesses: “AI’s long-term impact will be as great – if not greater – in the shore-based support functions and processes: the white-collar roles. So AI will be transformational in the back office as well as the front line, and we need to prepare for white-collar automation”.
We spoke to Harry after he attended the inaugural AI Summit in London on 5 May. The second, larger AI Summit takes place in San Francisco on 28-29 September. To find out more, and to join us at the Fort Mason Center in September, visit: theaisummit.com
Feature image credit: Flickr