A Japanese life insurance company has recently made plans to replace 34 employees with an artificial intelligence (AI) system. The system implemented by Fukoku Life Insurance is based on IBM’s Watson Explorer that possesses the capacity to analyse and interpret a wide range of unstructured media such as text, images, audio and video data. It will draw upon medical certificates, past surgical procedures and hospital stays in order to calculate payments for policyholders with sums being sent out after having been approved by human members of staff. The company states that the use of this technology will improve the firm’s productivity by an estimated 30% as it greatly reduces the time needed for the calculation of payments. The company also expects a return on its investment within two years as it claims it will make yearly savings in salaries.
This development raises important questions for our wider conceptions of automation and its effect on workforces. The redundancy of these 34 Japanese white-collar workers indicates that no sector is ‘safe’ from its effects. Japan’s ageing population coupled with its shrinking workforce points to a clear need for increased productivity and efficiency that the use of AI systems may be able to provide. The adaptability offered by IBM Watson means that they can, and have already, been applied to a wide range of sectors. For instance, doctors are beginning to utilise these systems to diagnose and recommend treatments for cancer, while Japanese government agencies are also implementing AI systems to provide civil servants and politicians with key information and answers to assist them in meetings and parliamentary sessions.