brunette woman standing on a walkway
Excluding human intelligence from workplace processes removes valuable feedback. PHOTO: Lauren Ferstl

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, has become the poster child for artificial intelligence (AI) in the age of big data.

Watson shot to stardom winning Jeopardy in 2011, putting a national spotlight on the power of AI and machine learning. Opponent Ken Jennings’ acknowledged the machine's huge potential when he said, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

Today, as Watson forges new partnerships with major corporations like GM, providing cognitive computing solutions for businesses of all types, it has graduated to a new level. Through Watson’s cognitive computing, IBM is the first to apply this intelligence to the workplace.

Machines vs. Humans

There’s been a huge amount of fear-mongering, propagating the idea that AI will replace human processes with automation — making us redundant.

Reliance on the machines also brings further risks to businesses; eroding human capability and masking — or even inciting — incompetence, culminating in disaster the moment that computers fail and the humans are required to perform. The most advanced AI tools, like Watson, act as intelligent consultants, working alongside the humans to mine big data and make discoveries that augment our potential.

So how will this technology disrupt the current status of AI automation for office workers, and how exactly will it make businesses — or even individuals — smarter?

AI to Transform the World of Work

The biggest developments of AI in the office can be split into two distinct areas.

  • The first is natural language processing (NLP), which is the capture and identification of data
  • The second is machine learning, the ability to see data patterns and predict outcomes through analyzing historical patterns

As devices get smaller, professionals on-the-go need to interact in different ways. Microfied tools and the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) have called for human speech and text recognition tools to support communications. This has driven a rapid growth in NLP technologies, seen in the rise of personal assistants and chatbots, tools like Siri, Echo, Cortana and voice-controlled services for the workplace.

Equivio, Box: Champions of AI

In the office setting, this means tools like Equivio — a text analytics service acquired last year by Microsoft. This software uses NLP to analyze business documents, helping companies to understand and overcome legal and compliance issues.

Equivio also employs machine learning. Its proprietary platform Zoom categorizes documents into relevant groups and helps to identify individuals. File storage company Box also uses machine learning to help users quickly search for documents, by providing more intuitive algorithms to surface this content.

The growth of cheap computing power means we now have the tools to make sense of big data. And through this analysis AI will transform the workplace and worker duties.

According to Forrester, AI is on track to replace 16 percent of jobs in the U.S., but it will also create 9 percent, overall resulting in a net loss of 7 percent. In this time of huge transition, it is important to consider just how businesses should be using this intelligence.

There is a real risk of automation as a replacement for human intervention, and this may not be the best course.

The Perils of Too Much Automation

Office applications of AI seek to take a repetitive task, map the decisioning and replace this with computer processing. In many instances the automation of mundane tasks is optimal, for example, X.ai’s personal assistant Amy cuts out the to-and-fro of scheduling a meeting, replacing a basic task with an improved digital solution.

AI can be used to create a templated approach to a seemingly simple process, and machine learning can adapt this based on real-time information.

There is the temptation for businesses to automate all human processes deemed repetitive, where human actors can be simulated by machines.

In this vein, leading customer engagements software provider, Pegasystems recently acquired robotic automation intelligence provider, OpenSpan. OpenSpan uses machine learning to automate customer service duties, such as reviewing claim details to updating transaction systems, allowing them to be completed without the need for human involvement.

This might sound like a dream to both employers and employees, but there is danger in the adoption of automation on a big scale. It can be a great quick fix to ensure a specified task is carried out, but in the long-term, excluding human intelligence removes valuable feedback.

This could mean inappropriate social media interactions, such as Oreo’s retweeting an offensive account from bots representing brands, or more severe repercussions, such as poorly prepared pilots, unable to step-in when autopilot fails. The paradox of automation, described by the Guardian’s Tim Harford, means that as humans begin to rely on these systems, they in turn become less able.

Recognizing Human Decisioning

For businesses today, automating many tasks not only risks diminishing employee performance, it also replaces critical evaluation from team members.

Over time this will prolong processes that would otherwise evolve or be phased out through human decisioning. It does not get to the root of larger organizational problems, instead it keeps repeating these, and the power of workers to build better businesses is ignored.

AI to Augment Human Processes

The future of AI in the workplace is not about AI as a crutch, automating tasks and removing responsibility. Those who employ AI in this way face a future where the human eventually has nothing to do. Instead we need to think of AI as a tool for coaching, in this way we can tap into human expertise — and enhance this with machines.

We can see this taking form today, with the introduction of business applications, such as Watson, working with humans to improve efficiencies.

As big data continues to expand and grow, businesses are dealing with more and more information, and they have reached data exhaust. Emerging AI will cut through this chaos and support cost-saving strategies, empowering employees as decision-makers and strategists, rather than making their input comparable with machine computing.

In the rise of AI solutions, their secret weapon is their ability to mine this data exhaust and provide insight and clarity, helping humans to work faster and better.

  1. Chatbots, such as those used by Dutch airline KLM, can uncover useful customer information, such as itineraries, leaving human customer service reps free to tackle more complex problems.
  2. Tools such as Celonis, a tool that mines big data to analyze and visualize every process, are the future of AI for businesses.
  3. In a more abstract use-case new intelligence amplification (AI) tools could even augment the human cerebral potential, using AI tools to enhance our intellects.

Beyond the mundane, these smart analytics will not be used to fulfill basic tasks while humans passively observe, instead they will be harnessed to expand the human potential.

Behind all of this is the concept of continuous incremental improvement. Yes, AI will transform the workplace, if businesses can tap the real potential it will be an enabler for their teams.

AI will traverse this growing mass of big data and inform experts, providing insights so that people can do more with less, not the reverse.