Dubai government opens robot-run service centre

Artificial intelligence is transforming an increasing number of Middle East workplaces

The Dubai government has opened a new service centre staffed predominately by robots that features only one human member of staff – with the rest of the work being done by artificial intelligence (AI).

The 'Service 1' centre consolidates the services previously offered by 14 separate government agencies, including the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation, slashing the time taken for bureaucratic processes such as registering new-born babies and dealing with employment legislation, according to officials.

Hailed as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, AI is coming to many workplaces across the region. Dubai is planning to introduce driverless taxis by 2020, and driverless flying drone taxis are rumoured to be arriving this year. Emirates NBD is piloting artificial intelligence to automate customer services and Mashreq Bank has just announced it will be cutting 10 per cent of its 4,000-strong workforce over the next year due to the implementation of AI.

Elie Georgiou-Botaris, practice leader, talent management Middle East at Willis Towers Watson, believes the evolution of the employment relationship and the revolution in technological breakthroughs such as AI and robotics, will have a significant impact on jobs.

“Manual and routine mechanical jobs that do not necessarily require human talent will eventually be performed by robots and AI,” he said. “Our global research on the future of work found that 54 per cent of companies surveyed said they would be changing their workforce activities in the next three years to enable them to use more non-employee talent where applicable, due to technological advancement.”

Professional jobs that require human intervention and interaction would continue to be staffed by humans, he said, but employees would need new skillsets to cope with the changing employment landscape.

“We intend to study the potential use of robotics in welding processes – something that is already developing in the industry,” said John Macdonald, vice president – human resources and administration, at Lamprell, a UAE-based provider of fabrication, engineering and contracting services. “Many parts of our fabrication work are production-line oriented, so the more automation we can apply, the more cost-effective it should become.”

David Jones, labour market economist, founder and CEO at The Talent Enterprise, said there were a lot of opportunities for AI to be used in the government sector due to the large number of customer service roles. “What’s interesting is the public sector is saturated with GCC national employees, with nationalisation being a parallel policy, so potentially the impact [of AI] could be much higher on nationals,” he said.

“Governments and policymakers may hesitate or even duplicate processes just to protect [nationals from losing jobs] during the transition stage,” he suggested.

Looking at HR specifically, Jones said that despite work over the past few decades to transition to the business partner model, and to use technology to take over the transactional aspects, many of The Talent Enterprise’s regional and global clients “feel more comfortable with the administrative, policy-driven, black and white, rule-based type of approach – which is more vulnerable to automation – and less comfortable in some cases with the transition to the more value-added approach”.

AI has the potential “reshape HR”, experts have previously said. It is both a threat – since in HR, as elsewhere, it has the potential to mechanise huge numbers of tasks and entire roles – and an opportunity to take ownership of a smarter way of working.

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