In Brief
  • Japanese life insurance company Fukoku Mutual is replacing 34 employees with AI derived from IBM's Watson.
  • Automation is securing its place now even outside of the manufacturing sector. While not all jobs are at risk of machine replacement, that list seems to be growing smaller.

The Future is Here

It looks like the job automation trend is getting to Japan, bringing the country a step closer to a future of layoffs in favor of intelligent machines. Japanese firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Co. is laying off more than 30 of its employees and is replacing them with artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will perform payout calculations for policyholders.

For Fukoku Mutual, the move is seen as a practical and beneficial, with expected increase in productivity at 30 percent and a calculated return on investment in less than two years.The insurance firm will spend about 200 million yen to install the AI system, and maintenance is expected to cost about 15 million yen annually,” writes the Japanese daily The Mainichi. “Meanwhile, it’s expected that Fukoku Mutual will save about 140 million yen per year by cutting the 34 staff.” Understandably, the 34 employees whose jobs are set to be eliminated by March 2017 aren’t going to be so happy.

The kind of work these AI systems are expected to do isn’t just limited to calculating payouts. “[T]he system will also be able to check customers’ cases against their insurance contracts to find any special coverage clauses — a measure expected to prevent payment oversights,” The Mainichi reports. “The type of payments the AI is expected to oversee at Fukoku Mutual totaled some 132,000 cases in fiscal 2015.”

Credits: IBM
Credits: IBM

The Future of Jobs

With that much at stake, Fukoku Mutual is relying on a system based on IBM’s Watson Explorer. According to IBM, this system is equipped with “cognitive technology that can think like a human,” and “can analyze and interpret all of your data, including unstructured text, images, audio and video”.

This isn’t Watson’s first job experience. Last July, Watson started working as in-store assistants at Macy’s. And, after learning Japanese, Watson started assisting on jobs in Japan, as well. The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co., for instance, has been using Watson in processing payment assessments, with human auditors and no staff cutoffs. By March 2017, the Japan Post Insurance Co. will also start trying out Watson for the same duties.

This also isn’t the first time a large firm decided on automation in favor of human employees. In the U.S., industry giant Walmart cut 7,000 office jobs, replacing them with automated invoice and accounting systems. Several studies have already predicted the resulting unemployment due to the rise of intelligent machines. A recent combined study by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School, an estimated “47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years.”

Without a doubt, the age of automation is already upon us — and it’s just the beginning.