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PHOTO: Etienne Boulanger

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be a good thing for the digital workplace. Despite concerns about job redundancies and shifting enterprise priorities, recent research from global auditing company PwC suggests that, far from hindering employees or even making some jobs obsolete, AI will help workers achieve business objectives quicker and more effectively. To do that, however, organizations will need to invest in different types of AI.

The research, part of PwC's Economic Outlook for 2018, predicted the main contributor to the UK's economic gains between 2017 and 2030 will come from consumer product enhancements stimulating consumer demand (8.4 percent). The research identified AI as a key factor in this growth, by driving a greater choice of products, increasing personalization and making those products more affordable over time.

According to the report, AI-driven increases in labor productivity will also boost GDP gains as firms seek to "augment" the productivity of their labor force with AI technologies and by automating some tasks and roles. Significant gains will be seen across all UK regions, that will result in a GDP increase of 10.3 percent in 2030 due to AI — the equivalent of an additional $305 billion — making it one of the biggest commercial opportunities in the current economy. The gains, the report says, will come from:

  • Productivity gains (1.9 percent) and consumption side product enhancements and new firm entry stimulating demand (8.4 percent).
  • Extra spending power per household of up to $3000 per year until 2030.

AI, according to the report, refers to computer systems that can sense their environment, think, learn and then act as a result. This ability to respond to the environment sets artificial intelligence apart from automation of routine tasks. Machine learning algorithms and chatbots are examples of AI that are already used by businesses today. PwC’s definition of AI, however, goes beyond this. PwC also includes automation, the replacement of repetitive manual and cognitive tasks by machines that are not necessarily "intelligent" and that instead have basic rules-based capabilities. The report explains the inclusion as a recognition of the part they play in the progress towards advanced intelligent technologies. 

But how exactly will AI make workers more productive? Let's explore some examples.

Related Article: Why AI Still Has a Way to Go in the Digital Workplace

1. Helping Control Information Overload 

According to a survey conducted by Dimensional Research in tandem with Austin, Texas-based M-Files, nearly 50 percent of workers said they have struggled with documents and content scattered in disparate locations across their organization. In addition, Trevor Cookson, AI product manager at M-Files said, the survey found 40 percent of workers had to search three or more locations to find a file or document and that nearly half of workers were unsure if they had the most recent version.

“The copious amount of data generated daily is a nightmare for employees, and that’s where AI comes in. New developments in AI set the stage for an intelligent digital assistant that is designed to help employees do data-oriented tasks — such as prioritizing emails based on urgency, balancing workflows and proactively attaching relevant content to emails — and ultimately make their lives easier in this age of information overload,” he said.

AI can automatically analyze metadata tags and relationships to apply context to information, thus eliminating the need for employees to manually categorize content. AI can then take that context and proactively provide “logical” assistance — such as prioritizing responses to high-importance emails or preventing employees from sharing confidential information.

Related Article: How Machine Learning Will Tame the Explosion of Unstructured Data

2. Reducing Rote Tasks in Contact Centers

In the case of contact centers, AI tools, in this case referred to as chatbots, have grown in popularity. They are considerably more intelligent and interactive than previous models and an automated conversation can present a cost-effective solution. While the growing presence of chatbots introduces a new player, the importance of human presence in the contact center becomes more important than ever. 

Contact center agents believe that technology innovations in the next two to three years will positively affect their jobs, with 17 percent naming speech analytics as the tool that will have the biggest impact. And, with AI and automation taking more of the menial tasks, agents are relived of activities that typically bring on stress and perhaps boredom,” said Tom Goodmanson, CEO of Minneapolis-based workforce optimization provider Calabrio.

3. Predicting Work Patterns

Mike Duensing is CTO and EVP of engineering at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based codeless development platform provider Skuid. He said with Alexa, Siri, Cortana and other voice assistants on the rise at home, workers want their own voice-activated personal assistants in the office to help perform business tasks and make their job easier. With machine learning and intelligent agents (chatbots, voice assistants), AI will free employees up to be more mobile, more productive and work smarter. According to Duensing, the current sophistication for AI in the workplace is low, as they can only follow scripted paths.

Soon, however, chatbots that use machine learning will be able to have nonlinear conversations and make predictions based on previous workplace habits and patterns. Google's Duplex AI system and integrations between Cortana and Alexa are signs that risk-averse enterprise IT are opening to the idea of employing virtual assistants. Imagine, Duensing said, being able to ask your chatbot to pull a quote for a sales prospect on the way to the airport. Not only is the salesperson skipping a task that might have taken four clicks and searching through multiple tabs, but they can get their data anytime, anywhere.

Related Article: Workers Are Using AI at Home, Not in the Workplace. Here's Why

4. Improving Employee Morale

“Many in the industry view artificial intelligence as a threat in the workplace. It can be viewed as big brother monitoring every move or be competition that may replace employees' functions. However, AI can also improve the employee experience in many ways,” Zoe Dowling, lead research strategist at Stamford, Conn.-based market research technology provider FocusVision said. 

Drawing upon a wide variety of internal data, such as exit interviews, employee reviews and pulse scores, AI could continually monitor employee morale, allowing companies to adjust their practices as needed, better engage workers and reduce high turnover, she said.

5. AI Improves Workflows

Many companies are already using AI to improve functions across their entire enterprise. In the unified communications sector, AI is changing the way companies structure their workflows, decision-making processes, and their strategy planning. When coupled with analytics, AI programming helps leaders make better employee, customer and production decisions based on both existing circumstances and AI-predicted future events, said Jimmy Carroll, partner and director at Chicago-based unified communications provider TetraVX.

Customer service chatbots are designed to act like humans but actually are just digital portals. These virtual assistants automatically engage in “conversations” with consumers while also managing their transactions. AI will also streamline mobile messaging capabilities between consumers and vendors. AI automation in this case will give corporations the tools they need to embrace customer-related mobile messaging at the same speed (or close to it) their customers are adopting it.