Subscriber view: bots and bodies – the value of human intervention


The government’s pledge to fund AI, recognises the technologies ability to transform outcomes through early diagnosis of cancer and other chronic disease and is symbolic of the widespread rhetoric around the possibilities of new technology, says Andrew Wayland, Chief Technology Officer at Alexander Mann Solutions

new technology

The potential that AI is currently offering businesses, and continues to create, is indisputable. Not least in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sector where the potential rewards for rapid innovation, greater efficiency and enhanced accuracy are life-changing. However, while scaremongering around potential job losses associated with this rapid pace of change continues to ensue, the truth is that the greatest successes will come as a result of collaboration between humans and machines – and business leaders in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sector must build workforces that facilitate this alliance.

We must remember that AI and other technology is always completely dependent on humans and however ‘smart’ machines become, understanding context in a way that only humans can is critical. As physicist James Timbie from the Hoover Institution points out, humans and machines must work together for greater efficiency and productivity: ‘One example is medical diagnosis. A diagnosis is a determination of how information on a patient fits into a pattern characteristic of a disease. This is something machines do well. Machines trained with the digital records and outcomes of millions of previous patients can produce a diagnosis for a sick patient, along with recommendations for treatment and perhaps further tests. Machines can take into account far more data and keep up with the latest research better than any doctor. The doctor’s primary role would be to interact with the patient, understand the context and gather information, leverage what the AI can do best, and then convey the outcome to the patient, and help the patient understand and accept it, so the patient follows through with the treatment plan.’

However, despite this growing understanding that humans must work alongside machines to achieve maximum productivity, previous research by Alexander Mann Solutions found that just 23 per cent of senior HR professionals believe that we are preparing the next generation of professionals for the rise of AI. When quizzed on what skills businesses should be developing to enhance the potential of AI, over a third (36 per cent) cited adaptability to change, around a fifth (22 per cent) said creative skills were most important, with a similar number (18 per cent) believing IT and technical skills should be prioritised.

Instead of focussing on artificial intelligence, we should perhaps be looking instead at augmented intelligence – concentrating on AI’s assistive role, and its ability to enhance human intelligence, rather than on machines with the capacity to replace it.

The successful implementation of effective systems relies on strong strategy and delivery. With this in mind, it is crucial that HR teams put in place strategic workforce plans to ensure that they not only have access to requisite technical skills, but also focus on investing in talent with adaptable core competencies which are currently difficult to recreate in machines, such as creativity and communication skills. What’s more, as James Guszcza, Deloitte Consulting’s US Chief Data Scientist notes, ‘Many AI systems can run on “autopilot” much of the time, but require human intervention in exceptional or ambiguous situations that require common sense or contextual understanding. Human-centred design is needed to ensure that this ‘handoff’ from computer to human happens when it should, and that it goes smoothly when it does happen.’

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The future of work relies on not only professionals who can build data sets and spot feedback loops to ensure that machines fulfil their required purpose – and put the brakes on when necessary – but also talent that can do what technology can’t. HR strategists must become accustomed to upskilling existing teams and planning future workforces with robots in mind – but there will be no cliff-edge of job losses as AI replaces tasks. Instead, the roles of real-life employees will develop so that we will work alongside robots to become more efficient and productive, and innately human traits will become more valuable than ever before.

It is worth noting that in 2013 an Oxford University study revealed that 47 per cent of jobs in the US and 35 per cent of roles in the UK were at a ‘high risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years. Fast forward five years and the OECD now forecasts that just 10 per cent of US jobs and 12 per cent of UK roles look set to be impacted – and not necessarily lost altogether.

Yes, the capabilities of AI are extensive, but there are also clear limitations. Factors such as the narrow focus of AI and its dependence on the data are reasons why human intervention is always required. It’s vital that we deploy robots in areas where they excel – but we must leave humans to do what they do best.

About the author

Andrew joined Alexander Mann Solutions in 2015, and is responsible for the strategic direction of its Global Technology and Business Intelligence functions.

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