The Fitness and Survival of the OR Profession in the Age of Artificial Intelligence


The OR Society’s Beale Medal is awarded each year in memory of the late Martin Beale. It gives formal recognition to a sustained contribution over many years to the theory, practice, or philosophy of OR in the UK. The 2016 Beale Medal Winner, Professor Richard Ormerod, gave his talk entitled The Fitness and Survival of the OR Profession in the Age of Artificial Intelligence at this year’s Beale Lecture held on 22 February.

His talk began with a statement about the future. He said, ‘Of course saying anything about the future is inherently tricky. But actually writers of futurology and science fiction have rather a good track record. From Arthur C. Clarke who anticipated communications satellites to George Orwell who imagined the social consequences. One of the oldest such imaginings was the film, “the Automatic Motorist”, (made in 1911), it was about a metal robot that could drive a car.’

The fitness and survival of the OR profession in the age of artificial intelligence

Richard Ormerod

‘We are heading toward the fourth industrial revolution; The rise of the robots. A place where humans need not apply.’ This fourth revolution would see robots taking 30% of graduate jobs. The ‘coming of the robots’ was nothing new though; since cave-dwellers started creating and inventing, technology has been displacing labour. In more recent times technologists have invented and perfected new ways of doing things and new things to do, while economists have studied the diffusion of innovation and sociologists have examined the social consequences and futurists have imagined new realities.

The new realities are upon us now, and the computerisation of human activity is well underway. Initially it will affect mainly non-skilled labour and then skilled labour. Later perhaps, professional and managerial activities will fall prey. For this latest wave of displacement, artificial intelligence (AI) will provide the key to unlocking the door.

One of the PowerPoint slides used to illustrate Professor Ormerod’s talk (available in our document repository) was a stark and simple comment in black letters on a white background, the comment was made by Professor Steven Hawking, and it read thus: ‘The rise of powerful artificial intelligence could be the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We don’t know which yet.’

Another slide encapsulated just how difficult it could be to forecast our AI future – there was such a variety of change that could take place, so many inequalities. It quoted Moore’s law, Reed’s Law and Amara’s law. Moore’s Law described how computing power grows; the number of transistors per square inch doubles approximately every 18 months. Reed’s law stated the ‘value of a network increases automatically when people form subgroups for collaboration and sharing.’ Amara’s law stated that, ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate in the long run.’

Powerful computers, the means by which much OR practice occurs today, will be programmed with AI. The issue here though was how AI will affect professional practitioners in general and OR in particular.

Richard asked, ‘What is likely to happen and how quickly? What are the implications for training, education and research? To answer such questions we could turn to our experience of practicing OR and to the insights of mathematics, philosophy, economics, sociology and computer science.’ In OR we aspire to be logical, but what does this involve? Logic itself has recently been the subject of a rapid growth in research activity as philosophers, mathematicians and computer scientists innovate and collaborate.

Economists have conducted research into the conditions that determine the adoption of a new technology and the speed at which it will displace the old one. Sociologists have examined the negative consequences such as the loss of the social context of work and the enhancement of managerial panoptic power; more positively they have developed the notion of communities of practice, involving activities which may be difficult for AI to replicate.


In terms of OR jobs it seems likely that, as in other professions, various roles will be differentiated (unbundled), giving rise to new, more varied career paths in the light of the systemisation enabled by computerisation including AI. In turn, educational and training requirements will change. It was also important to understand that AI did not come in just one variety, there could (according to one of his slides) be ‘Artificial narrow intelligence – aka: weak or applied AI’ or ‘Artificial General Intelligence – aka: strong or full AI.’ 

The means of delivering OR education and training will change in the age of AI too, it will evolve in line with education activities more generally. During this transition and beyond, The OR Society will need to continue to facilitate a sense of community, a community of OR practice.


Professor Richard Ormerod
Emeritus Professor

Richard Ormerod started his career as a civil engineer designing large steel bridges. In 1972 he obtained an MSc in OR and MS at Warwick University and joined the NCB’s OR Executive (ORE) working in Yorkshire and London. Subsequently as Deputy Director of the NCB’s corporate planning unit he sponsored ORE’s development of strategic models addressing national and international coal and energy issues.

From 1987, as a principal consultant in PA Computers and Telecommunications, he assisted a wide variety of clients, including Volkskas Bank, Nicholas Laboratories (now Piramal Healthcare), the Inland Revenue, National Grid, Sainsbury’s, and BP. In 1991 he returned to Warwick as Professor of OR and Systems. 

The focus of his research has been the practice of OR, how it can be described, understood and improved. He has published a number of case studies on his use of soft OR in consulting interventions including Sainsbury’s, PowerGen (now E.ON ), and the UK Parliament. On these foundations he has developed the Transformation Competence Perspective (TCP) as a way of thinking about, negotiating, and designing an OR intervention.

His theoretical interests have included American pragmatism, Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, and Talcott Parsons’ functionalism. In 1995 he was an INFOR MS Franz Edelman Award finalist. A career that spans over forty years of contribution to the theory, practice, and philosophy of OR in the UK – surely a truly suitable recipient.