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PHOTO: Mike Wilson

Business adoption of artificial intelligence is accelerating, fueled by an explosion of data, the rapid growth in cloud computing and the emergence of advanced algorithms.

In a survey of IT decision-makers that my company, CCS Insight, conducted in July 2017, 58 percent of respondents said they are using, testing or researching the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in their organizations. 

Respondents also estimated that as much as 30 percent of their business applications would be enhanced with machine learning within the next 24 months — a bullish view, considering the technology's well-documented problems with trust, cost and the lack of skills needed to train machine learning systems.

Speech-based and image-based cognitive applications are emerging at an accelerating rate for use in specific markets, such as fraud detection in finance, low-level contract analysis in the legal sector and personalization in retail. AI is also beginning to appear in systems designed for corporate functions such as customer service, HR, sales and IT.

These early implementations indicate that, over the next five years, AI will change the way we work and, in the process, transform businesses. And its full-scale arrival may be approaching more quickly than we realize.

Related Article: The AI-Based Intelligent Workplace Is Closer Than You Think

The Intelligent Workplace

One of the areas where early AI activity shows the most promise is in workplace technology. Those nascent AI deployments are enabling what marketers are beginning to call the “intelligent workplace.”

Forward-thinking companies consider workplace AI as part of their digital transformation strategies and see it as integral to their efforts to improve the employee experience. They are doing so against a backdrop of high levels of employee dissatisfaction with workplace technology, poor productivity and low employee engagement. For example, almost half of the people who participated in a 2016 CCS Insight survey of employees in North America and Western Europe said their workplace technology did not fully meet their needs.

Employees are drowning in a sea of data and are faced with a sprawling array of digital tools. They use an average of 6.1 mobile apps for work purposes today, according to the 2017 CCS Insight survey of employees. Part of the reason we have seen a lag in macro productivity since the 2008 financial crisis is that we waste a lot of time doing mundane tasks, like searching for data, booking meetings and mixing cumbersome legacy technologies with a complex web of disconnected enterprise and personal apps on a daily basis.

In this context, new AI presents exciting opportunities to advance workplace technologies.

  • Productivity apps. Assistive cognitive features have become more prevalent in productivity software. They improve the performance of search tools, enable quicker access to documents, support automated email replies and power virtual assistants that display contextually relevant information for users and are capable of automating tasks that are simple but time-consuming.
  • Voice control. The integration of voice or natural language processing in productivity apps will further boost productivity. With the rise of speech-controlled smart speakers, such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and the recently launched Alexa for Business, we may soon be able to create and complete documents using speech dictation, or use natural language queries to parse data or control functions in spreadsheets.
  • IT support. At many organizations, employee productivity suffers because IT support services are inadequate. Some companies are trying to improve IT support by deploying self-service tools that use virtual agents and machine learning technologies to automate common low-level support tasks like resetting passwords and logging help desk tickets. First and foremost, these systems are designed to make employees more satisfied with workplace technology, but they can also make it possible to allocate IT support personnel to higher-value tasks.
  • Cybersecurity. Perhaps one of the biggest uses of AI will be to protect company information in the fight against spam, phishing attacks and malware. The rise of data breaches across the globe, combined with a shortage of IT professionals who have cybersecurity expertise, means that companies need AI to help them better detect risks and improve how they respond to incidents. This is why respondents to our 2017 survey of IT decision-makers listed cybersecurity as the most likely use for AI in their organizations.

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

Tips to Get Started With AI 

Businesses of all shapes and sizes need to prepare for one of the most important technology shifts of our generation. For those of you who have yet to begin implementing an AI strategy, here are a few things to consider.

Start Simple

New assistive AI features in off-the-shelf productivity and collaboration software are good places to start. They can help employees get familiar with the technology and its benefits. Smart email systems, improved document access and search tools, chatbots and speech assistants are simple and accessible technologies that can save time, improve workflows and enhance employee experiences.

Build and Buy

Take advantage of the tremendous amount of supplier investment in AI by combining the build and buy approaches to the technology. Buy off-the-shelf systems for horizontal applications such as security products that incorporate machine learning for threat intelligence and anomaly detection. Focus research-and-development efforts and talent-management strategies on building domain- and company-specific applications that improve your competitive advantage.

Mind the Fear

Not all employees will be immediately supportive of AI technology in the workplace. Although our surveys reveal that employees are generally positive about the technology, there is still a lot of fear and confusion about how AI could eliminate jobs, be prone to bias or violate privacy. Be mindful of the importance of good communication, ethical uses, transparency and, above all, employee engagement throughout the process of deploying AI-based systems.

AI will no doubt face some challenges over the next few years as it enters the workplace. But more organizations are now focusing on how the technology can be used more effectively to assist employees and enable smarter work and more intelligent workplaces.

There is much in store for AI as enterprises become more familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. The next 12 months will be fascinating.