It’s hard to discuss the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace until you decide what AI is.

Some academics tell us — using lots of words — that AI is computers that think, learn and ultimately act like humans while others hold that maximizing the interaction between computers and their humans — such as in Human Computer Interaction or HCI — qualifies as the closest thing to AI we are likely to see.

Until you decide on which side of that dichotomy you fall, it’s difficult to understand how, or if, AI contributes to business, and if so, how to improve its contributions.

Thinking Machines: Possible or Pipe Dream?

Our fascination with the idea of machines that think like humans goes back millennia, but it’s only recently that it appears to potentially be in reach. And while AI research has uncovered some amazing technological capabilities, it has also run into a quagmire in its attempts to 1) agree on just what human intelligence is; and 2) the extent to which technology might be capable of replicating it.

Society doesn’t need to resolve this question to take advantage of what technology (well short of human-like) brings to the table. The search for machine-humanity may act as much as an impediment as a benefit to the effective — and safe — use of our ever-growing technological capability.  Some people, including Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk and Steven Hawking, warn that true AI might bring with it a series of existential threats to humanity that could make its potential value not worth its risk. 

I believe technology doesn't need to replicate human thought in order to have a powerful and growing role, especially in business and manufacturing. The combination of human and computer resources represented by the Human-Computer Interaction or HCI movement, may actually generate more valuable results, at less cost and with less vulnerability to the things about technology we don’t fully understand.

And HCI is here today, increasing rapidly in its ability to support all facets of society.

Thinking Computers vs. Problem Solving? I’ll Take the Latter

HCI focuses on solving difficult problems, evaluating the potential for technology in the solutions and taking its human components into account rather than attempting to remove the need for them.  

Remote sensing, for example, can help health care expand the diagnostic ability of human physicians beyond their physical location, offering the care of the profession’s best practitioners to a wider range of patients, and allowing diagnosis and treatment everywhere to approximate that available now only at Johns Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic and their like.  

Viewing this set of challenges, it becomes apparent that better remote sensing technology will multiply the human diagnostic resources already in place or in development. Deciding whether that qualifies as AI is unnecessary because solutions that come from such developments — though perhaps well short of human-like —will be monumentally valuable.

Where HCI Impacts Business

The Virtual Workplace

Since businesses have existed, most important things were done by humans working together and in close physical proximity. The reason why is self-evident: if a problem took multiple minds to solve, those minds had to be within easy reach of each other. 

As society and business became more complex, devices like mail, telegraph and telephone marginally loosened the need for proximity, but it wasn’t until the rise of the internet that the need for physically co-located groups reduced in a major way.  

Today, groups of all sizes, with all manner of goals, work together even though their members are widely dispersed, sometimes never finding themselves in the same building — or even on the same continent.

While AI purists would sniff at this HCI-driven advancement, it has created what could be viewed as a virtual mind made up of resources wherever they are found, but all working as if they are together.  

Those of us who entered business before the age of networking, email and broadband communications — for me, the Bell System in the mid-1960s — recognize this new world for the radical change it embodies, and with the growth and integration of technologies like 3D printing and holographic projection, it promises to become even more powerful.

Restructuring the Work Pyramid

Every organization, and every task, is roughly made up of a series of interlocking pyramids in which the thinking, design and planning occurs at the narrow top and the more repetitive tasks occur nearer the wider bottom. In the automobile industry, for example, a design group of 100 engineers can create plans and specifications that drive the work of thousands of fabrication and production workers, and so on.

Even in the work of individuals, most tasks include thinking and set up portions as well as rote actions to produce the final result.

The growth of HCI has, for some time, had the effect of restructuring these pyramids, large and small, using machines to complete the repetitive tasks nearer the bottom while allowing the designers and planners to create more output in less time at less cost, often with fewer defects.  

Early in the industrial revolution, changes like this were despised as depriving human workers of their livelihood, but as computers made their entrance, organizations realized that engaging machines to do the repetitive tasks could free resources, money and people, to expand the more creative functions, improving product design, expanding product lines and often creating work for more people in the bargain.  

In the mid-1960s, for example, Western Electric, using even the rudimentary computing available then, found that it could modularize the assembly operations of its PBX consoles so that instead of cumbersome production lines, entire units could be assembled by single workers at lower cost per unit, more flexibility to meet market demands and fewer rejects. 

Here HCI made the tasks more logical, allowing the human workers to be more productive.

While some may believe that we are far short of AI and may never see it, experience suggests that a powerful — and benign — form of AI is already here, and is making a powerful impact on the workplace.