Did you know the telephone was the first virtual reality technology? It took us five decades to adopt it as a commodity of life. It a took a little less time to adopt radios and televisions. But we swiftly embraced the PC and mobile phone in less than ten years.
We speed up the adoption of new technologies because we use new capabilities to create them. It reduces how long it takes to for us to accept the next “big thing”.
Today, we interact with machines in ways that were once the exclusive territory of humans. Chatbots, or virtual assistants, are the first evidence of machines interacting with us in human-like ways. Microsoft’s Cortana helps you with any search topic from your Windows 10 machine. Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, receives verbal commands. The chat window at the bottom of your bank’s web site prompts you to speak to a specialist.
So, how will AI impact our workforce?
Instead of assuming we’re all automatically out of jobs, let’s consider the value of being human. Humans are creative, imaginative, and often unpredictable. We base our decisions on fact or gut instinct to a situation. We can adapt to change and are guided by morals and principles. A computer “thinks” in a pattern that is logical and structured. Humans program AI to make the smartest and most consistent decisions, but if AI meets an unexpected condition, it will not always do the right thing. So, human and machine must work together.
Imagine this: you’re a new customer service representative for a utility company and you accept calls directly from customers. Your company has a low rating for its customer service and is losing customers. Many of your colleagues are quitting due to boredom. The utility company implements a new system, and instead of prompting customers to “press 1” and wait for more automated prompts, your pleasant voice greets them on the first ring with “how can I help?”
One customer states she wants to pay her bill, and you oblige and conclude the call. Another customer calls at the same time for a different reason and you deal with that request with ease and accuracy. Yes, it may be your voice, but it is not you. Your voice and personality answers hundreds of simultaneous calls – and only when your alter-ego trips up and can’t complete the task will you get forwarded a call. The customer isn’t startled by the change in voice or tone, and you resolve the problem because you see the details of his call already on your device.
“Being human” becomes a premium asset
In our example, the customer feels like he is important to the utility company because they are providing a human to help him. Yes, the utility company could have spawned instances of the same voice and personality to answer all calls. But this approach contributes to lower customer satisfaction because it sounds recorded – especially if they call and hear that voice more than once.
The utility company reduces its customer service staff. Yet, displaced workers are not dismissed. Value is in their innovation and creativity, as well as knowledge of the business and systems. They are now focused on managing the utility network from a control centre, with new responsibilities to use analytics and machine learning to expand and maintain the network.
Therefore, AI can help to increase job satisfaction
You hired out your voice to the utility company to answer calls and provide the “human touch” to their brand. Now you can take your daughter to school or watch your son’s dance recital while “you” are working. You are paid through new usage terms and conditions that give you flexibility and increase work/life balance. You are no longer tied to eight-hour shifts, five days a week.
The customer service scenario may sound preposterous, but the technologies already exist.
Montreal-based start-up Lyrebird created a system to mimic a person’s voice.
- Google’s DeepMind research company developed a deep neural network that synthesizes realistic human speech.
- Microsoft is making it easy to integrate artificial understanding into nearly any software application with Cognitive Services.
- Large consultancies, like Avanade, are stitching emerging technologies together and helping customers use them to increase revenue or drive down cost.
The customer service scenario may prompt concerns over legalities, security, privacy, employment, compensation, discrimination, and identity theft. But it portrays an organization’s responsibility to provide new opportunities for displaced workers.
Despite the challenges, organizations are digitally transforming to compete for customers and AI promises a way forward. With investment in AI expected to grow from $640m in 2016 to $37bn by 2025, the scenario I describe is coming – and humans will likely accept the change as business as usual.