Japanese company replaces office workers with artificial intelligence

A future in which human workers are replaced by machines is about to become a reality at an insurance firm in Japan, where more than 30 employees are being laid off and replaced with an artificial intelligence system that can calculate payouts to policyholders.

Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance believes it will increase productivity by 30% and see a return on its investment in less than two years. The firm said it would save about 140m yen (£1m) a year after the 200m yen (£1.4m) AI system is installed this month. Maintaining it will cost about 15m yen (£100k) a year.

The move is unlikely to be welcomed, however, by 34 employees who will be made redundant by the end of March.

The system is based on IBM’s Watson Explorer, which, according to the tech firm, possesses “cognitive technology that can think like a human”, enabling it to “analyse and interpret all of your data, including unstructured text, images, audio and video”.

The technology will be able to read tens of thousands of medical certificates and factor in the length of hospital stays, medical histories and any surgical procedures before calculating payouts, according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

While the use of AI will drastically reduce the time needed to calculate Fukoku Mutual’s payouts – which reportedly totalled 132,000 during the current financial year – the sums will not be paid until they have been approved by a member of staff, the newspaper said.

Japan’s shrinking, ageing population, coupled with its prowess in robot technology, makes it a prime testing ground for AI.

According to a 2015 report by the Nomura Research Institute, nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be performed by robots by 2035.

Dai-Ichi Life Insurance has already introduced a Watson-based system to assess payments - although it has not cut staff numbers - and Japan Post Insurance is interested in introducing a similar setup, the Mainichi said.

AI could soon be playing a role in the country’s politics. Next month, the economy, trade and industry ministry will introduce AI on a trial basis to help civil servants draft answers for ministers during cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions.

The ministry hopes AI will help reduce the punishingly long hours bureaucrats spend preparing written answers for ministers.

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If the experiment is a success, it could be adopted by other government agencies, according the Jiji news agency.

If, for example a question is asked about energy-saving policies, the AI system will provide civil servants with the relevant data and a list of pertinent debating points based on past answers to similar questions.

The march of Japan’s AI robots hasn’t been entirely glitch-free, however. At the end of last year a team of researchers abandoned an attempt to develop a robot intelligent enough to pass the entrance exam for the prestigious Tokyo University.

“AI is not good at answering the type of questions that require an ability to grasp meanings across a broad spectrum,” Noriko Arai, a professor at the National Institute of Informatics, told Kyodo news agency.

Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance believes it will increase productivity by 30% Photograph: Toru Hanai/REUTERS

Japanese insurance firm replaces 34 staff with AI

Science fiction has long imagined a future in which humans are ousted from their jobs by machines.
For 34 staff at a Japanese insurance firm, that vision just became a reality.

Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance is laying off the employees and replacing them with an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can calculate insurance payouts.

The firm believes it will increase productivity by 30%.

It expects to save around 140m yen (£979,500 / $1.2m) a year in salaries after the 200m yen AI system is installed later this month.

Maintenance of the set-up is expected to cost about 15m yen annually.

Japan's Mainichi reports that the system is based on IBM Japan Ltd's Watson, which IBM calls a "cognitive technology that can think like a human".

IBM says it can "analyze and interpret all of your data, including unstructured text, images, audio and video".
Fukoku Mutual will use the AI to gather the information needed for policyholders' payouts - by reading medical certificates, and data on surgeries or hospital stays.

According to The Mainichi, three other Japanese insurance companies are considering adopting AI systems for work like finding the optimal cover plan for customers.

A study by the World Economic Forum predicted last year that the rise of robots and AI will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries.
The 15 economies covered by the survey account for approximately 65% of the world's total workforce.

Japanese company replaces white-collar jobs with AI

They don't take days off. No, not even at weekends.

They never go on strike. Well, perhaps if there's a power outage.

And they never play politics or even talk back to the boss.

Robots are, indeed, the perfect white-collar workers. It's surely no surprise, then, that a Japanese insurance company has just replaced office humans with an artificial superior.

In a press release put out at year's end, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance crows that by introducing artificial intelligence software, productivity will be raised 30 percent.

This means 34 humans will be replaced, says a Thursday report from The Guardian. Yes, each layoff is worth about 1 percent more productivity. And a huge savings on coffee purchasing costs.

At the core of this change is a former winner of "Jeopardy." Fukoku Mutual has used IBM's people-destroying Watson AI software as the basis for its new artificially intelligent operations.

The work being done comprises, in part, the automatic encoding and classification of diseases, disasters, surgery and so on, according to the release.

Of course, this is all about the customer. Says Fukoku, at least. "We will strive to further improve customer service by improving the accuracy of payment assessment," the release reads.

One might also argue that it's all about the company, too. Fukoku will save 140 million yen (around $1.2 million) after it's inserted the AI system, The Guardian reports. The system itself costs around $1.7 million up front, and another $130,000 or so a year to maintain.

Fukoku didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Customers may or may not be happy with the switch. But it can't be easy to be a human who's told he has a machine to thank for his loss of employment. There's surely little consolation in knowing that the machines' work will still be supervised by a human. How long might that last?

How long before the machine bypasses the human, communicates directly with the customer and then sends the top boss an email to ask for a raise (or, at least, for praise)?

Ultimately, these machines will behave like a certain sort of human -- the perfectly obnoxious, always-on-time, absolutely-no-fun, ambitious know-it-all.

And who wants to work with someone like that?

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