Automation, artificial intelligence and robotics in the Water Industry

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2018 Water, Environment & Transport Conference
27 February 2018

Conference notes that water and wastewater companies will be including increased use of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics in their business plans for AMP7 (PR19) that they will be submitting to Ofwat. Surveys of senior executives in various industries show that organisations believe the combination of humans and machine intelligence will create a more effective, engaged and meritocratic workforce. The term “workforce” will eventually encapsulate both human employees and intelligent machines – the future is expected to be made of machines working alongside humans, not merely replacing them. However, this change will have to be managed carefully.

Conference in particular notes that areas in the Water Industry likely to be affected include:

a. Contact Centres – increased use of IVR (Interactive Voice Response) for handling customer calls, and chatbots for text-based interaction

b. Transport – self-driving tracks and tankers

c. Surveying – use of drones

d. Work in hazardous environments – use of robots

e. Human Resources – automated analysis of video and phone interviews prior to shortlisting

Conference also notes that: the economic case for introducing such technology depends partly on it being cheaper to run than waged/salaried humans. However robotic agents cannot yet master soft skills, innovate or draw on experience outside of work; introduction of automation involves considerable analysis and design work; and machines need to be programmed, trained and maintained.

Conference believes that UNISON branches organising in the Water Industry should take a two-pronged approach to these issues: both encouraging the Water Industry to upskill their employees for this new world of work, rather than making current employees redundant and hiring other people into newly created jobs; and ensuring that the pay, terms and conditions are enhanced to reflect the reduction in routine tasks and increase the skills needed for a more automated industry.

Conference calls on the WET Service Group Executive to:

1. Issue a briefing to all WET branches on the topic of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics in the Water Industry.

2. Raise the issues around the increased use of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics with the Water Industry via the regular consultative meetings between WET officers and both Ofwat and CCWater – and at the open Board meetings held by CCWater.

3. Through the Water Industry Sector Committee, monitor the introduction of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics within the Water Industry and consultation taking place to mitigate any negative effects on members.

4. Highlight this crucial issue in UNISON publications including Network magazine, the dedicated UNISON magazine for WET members.

5. Include automation, artificial intelligence and robotics as a topic at the WET Seminar in October 2018.