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The Melding of Minds: How AI and Humans are Changing the Workforce

In this special guest feature, Claus Jepsen, Deputy CTO and Chief Technology Strategist at Unit4, discusses how the future of AI holds both promise and mystery. It is more important than ever to prepare yourself, your team, and your organization to develop a strategy to leverage artificial intelligence. At Unit4, Claus builds cloud-based, super-scalable solutions and brings innovative technologies such as AI, chatbots, and predictive analytics to ERP. He is a strong believer that having access to vast amounts of data allows us to construct better, non-intrusive and pervasive solutions to improve our experiences, relieve us from tedious chores, and allow us focus on what we as individuals really love doing.

The ongoing conversation that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace our jobs has caused much concern and speculation. Workers are wondering which skills are replaceable, which will be automated, and what they can do to ensure their skills remain competitive. As an architect working on AI, machine learning and bot technologies, however, the way I see it is this: technology is going to replace tasks, not jobs.

Look at it this way: Just like email, computers, and the internet elevated employees to new proficiencies in past decades, AI’s purpose is to increase worker proficiency by eliminating time-consuming administrative tasks. Consider a famous example from the 19th century when a group of English textile artists sought to destroy newly invented textile machines for fear they’d lose their jobs. Their fear was unfounded, however, as instead of being replaced, the machines made it cheaper to produce fabric, leading to more customers, and more demand for workers.

Countless other examples throughout history have demonstrated this same pattern. Skeptics foretell of the pending “automation jobless,” as a 1961 TIME Magazine cover proclaimed, only to find that the exact opposite has occurred. Jobs changed, sure, but the size of the workforce didn’t shrink – it grew.

The same will be true of AI. Technology like AI is giving us a unique opportunity to rethink how work is done, and how people use their skills and talents to complete critical and differentiating tasks. AI works by applying pattern recognition to categorize structured and unstructured data, to flag anomalies and make recommendations. It can take care of the repetitive tasks so that all employees — from the back office to the CEO — can focus on higher-value projects that help them stay competitive.

For example, chatbots are already being used to alleviate the pressure of increasing customer inquiries. For B2B and B2C organizations alike, chatbots can be set up to answer the most basic requests of customers, such as delivering order status updates, scheduling appointments, answering common user questions, and providing simple automated services during the hours when a business is closed. For B2B organizations specifically, it can take over many of the lead nurturing tasks that happen at the top of the sales funnel – allowing humans more time to interact with prospects during the critical decision phase of the sales process.

I like to call this the melding of two “minds.” Artificial intelligence takes over many of the time-consuming tasks and augments data-driven research by more quickly finding patterns and making recommendations, while human intelligence supervises, guides and manages. This streamlined experience empowers people to do their jobs faster, better and smarter. Automation replaces useless redundancy and decreases the amount of data an employee must wade through to accomplish an assignment.

In a blog post about the Automation Paradox, James Bessen, an economist at Boston University School of Law, provides a perfect example: “Software, for instance, made it cheaper and faster to trawl through legal documents; so law firms searched more documents and judges allowed more and more-expansive discovery requests. Likewise, ATMs made it cheaper to operate bank branches, so banks dramatically increased their number of offices.”

As you can imagine, the impact of this technology enormous across all industries and verticals– back-office tasks such as payroll, administration, invoice approvals, and expense reporting can be delegated to bots. As we’ve seen with the increasing use of chatbots, more businesses have come to understand what processes they are able to streamline, and executives and employees alike have become more comfortable working alongside automation programs. In fact, a recent Deloitte survey of 1,100 IT and line of business executives concluded that more than 80% of executives gained a financial return from AI investments. Automation can create economic growth, reduce prices and increase demand while also creating new jobs that make up for those that disappear.

We’re seeing this in the ERP market especially; many software vendors have recently created their own versions of digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana – or are creating applications that allow users to have a conversation with their ERP software through one of these bots. These consumer chatbots – or designated ERP bots such as Wanda – can also streamline tedious employee tasks such as scheduling appointments, directing payments, following up on invoices – all from within a conversational interface. Soon you may be asking Siri, Alexa or Wanda to find the best deal and book your flight for an upcoming business trip!   

The future of AI holds both promise and mystery. It is more important than ever to prepare yourself, your team, and your organization to develop a strategy to leverage artificial intelligence. And keep in mind – AI, when used correctly, is about empowering people to do more and better than humanly possible.

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