49. OR in the Age of AI

In 2017, I was awarded Honorary Membership of the Operational Research Society. I felt duly honoured, not least because I had considered myself, in part, an operational researcher since the 1970s and had indeed published in the Society’s Journal and was a Fellow at a time when that had a different status. However, there was a price! For the following year, I was invited to give the annual Blackett Lecture, delivered to a large audience at the Royal Society in November last year. The choice of topic was mine. Developments in data science and AI are impacting most disciplines, not least OR. I thought that was something to explore and that gave me a snappy title: OR in the Age of AI.

OR shares the same enabling disciplines as data science and AI and (in outline) is concerned with system modelling, optimisation, decision support, and planning and delivery. The systems focus forces interdisciplinarity and indeed this list shows that insofar as it is a discipline, it shares its field with many others. If we take decision support and planning and delivery as at least in part distinguishing OR, then we can see it is applied and it supports a wide range of customers and clients. These have been through three industrial revolutions and AI promises a fourth. We can think of these customers, public or private, as being organisations driven by business processes. What AI can do is read and write, hear and see, and translate, and these wonders will transform many of these business processes. There will be more complicated shifts – driving robotics, including soft robotics, understanding markets better, using rules-based algorithms to automate processes – some of them large-scale and complicated. In many ways all this is classic OR with new technologies. It is ground-breaking, it is cost saving, and does deplete jobs. But in some ways it’s not dramatic.

The bigger opportunities come from the scale of available data, computing power and then two things: the ability of systems to learn; and the application to big systems, mainly in the public sector, not driven in the way that profit-maximising industries are. For OR, this means that the traditional roles of its practitioners will continue, albeit employing new technologies; and there is a danger that because these territories overlap across many fields – whether in universities or the big consultancies – there will be many competitors that could shrink the role of OR. The question then is:  can OR take on leadership roles in the areas of the bigger challenges?

Almost every department of Government has these challenges – and indeed many of them – say those associated with the criminal justice system – embrace a range of government departments, each operating in their own silos, not combining to collect the advantages that could be achieved if they linked their data. They all have system modelling and/or ‘learning machine’ challenges. Can OR break into these?

The way to break in is through ambitious proof-of-concept research projects – the ‘R’ part of R and D – which then become the basis for large scale development projects, the ‘D’. There is almost certainly a systemic problem here. There have been large scale ambitious projects – usually concerned with building data systems – arguably a prerequisite – and many of these fail. But most of the funded research projects are relatively small and the big ‘linking’ projects are not tackled. So the challenge for OR, for me, is to open up to the large-scale challenges, particularly in government, to ‘think big’.

The OR community can’t do this alone, of course. However, there is a very substantial OR service in government – one of the recognised analytics professions – and there is the possibility of asserting more influence from within. But the Government itself has a responsibility to ensure that its investment in research is geared to meet these challenges. This has to be a UKRI responsibility – ensuring that research council money is not too thinly spread, and ensuringthat research councils work effectively together as most of the big challenges are interdisciplinary and cross-council. Government Departments themselves should both articulate their own research challenges and be prepared to fund them.

Alan Wilson

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