“Alexa, what’s Artificial Intelligence?”
“Hey, Google. Could robots take over the customer service industry?”
“Siri, will computers become self-aware and seize control of the world, like in the Terminator films?”
It’s an amusing irony that, for many of us, the quickest way to find answers to questions like these is via the technology that inspired them.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become part of the fabric of our daily lives, with smart assistants and technology now in millions of properties around the world. According to Statista, sales of Amazon’s Echo units reached 32 million in 2018, and are expected to hit 130 million by 2025.
Advances in technology also form the foundation of the world’s shift towards hybrid work, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Herding people to the office is looking increasingly obsolete, expensive and inconvenient,” says IWG Founder and CEO Mark Dixon. “In some cases, data saved in the cloud isn’t even in the same country as the staff accessing it. So why should workers go to the effort and expense of dragging themselves into work to spend the day working on a device that they have brought with them, and will return home with at the end of the day?”
Now, companies as diverse as Standard Chartered bank, NTT and Google are committing to hybrid working for the long-term, recognising its benefits for business as well as the work-life balance of employees. IWG has added more than a million new users to its global network of flexible workspaces in the first half of 2021.
Like the hybrid approach, modern AI can enhance our working lives, helping us to increase productivity and improve our wellbeing. Here, we explore how AI is making us happier and more effective at work.
Smarter recruitment, better onboarding
In large firms, AI is already playing a part in the recruitment process, prescreening candidates before members of the HR team review their applications.
Skills assessments, which help companies to decide who to invite for interviews, have been ‘gamified’ by AI firms including Pymetrics. Its software allows candidates’ cognitive and emotional qualities to be appraised without fear that biases based on their race, gender or socioeconomic status might influence the outcome.
Modern Hire, another company that provides AI solutions for recruitment, has worked with more than 700 brands including Amazon, P&G and Walmart. It claims that services including automated interview scoring have been proven to be “over three times less biased than human interview scorers” and can help to “ensure a fair, complete and objective hiring experience”.
In theory, then, AI can help prevent you being recruited for a role that may not suit you. In addition to this, some companies are also using AI to further screen unsuccessful applicants, inviting them to try for alternative roles they might find more fitting.
When it comes to onboarding, forward-thinking companies such as Unilever have harnessed chatbot technology to help make sure no new hire’s question – no matter how small – goes unanswered. Its tool, Unabot, can offer information on everything from payroll problems to where workers will find parking spaces.
Improved customer service
People who work in customer-facing roles might worry more than most about the rise of AI – and chatbots in particular. While it’s true that they’re capable of handling a high percentage of basic queries, smart business leaders understand that chatbots need to work alongside human beings rather than replace them.
Chatbots can triage customer issues, addressing simple problems and freeing up staff to deal with more complex questions.
Many large firms use AI in this manner, including Dixons Carphone Warehouse. Its digital assistant, Cami, can respond to simple questions as well as perform helpful functions such as stock checking. Thornier issues are referred on to the customer services team.
Learning on the job – literally
AI has a role to play when it comes to retaining, as well as recruiting staff. Technology can support ongoing professional development, which is always a priority for ambitious workers who are keen to learn from more experienced colleagues.
Engineering firm Honeywell has developed virtual reality (VR) and AI based training tools that allow users to test their competency in challenging situations. The VR software presents them with simulated problems and also footage of workers’ real-life experiences, which is captured by engineers wearing specially designed headsets.
Goodbye to grunt work, hello improved efficiency
AI can also augment our working lives by performing dull, repetitive tasks such as arranging meetings or creating to-do lists on our behalf.
Microsoft Office 365 – already standard software in many workplaces around the world – has an array of simple AI features. Outlook, for instance, can scan messages and offer users a daily reminder of things they’ve committed to do. Its calendar is able to link specific documents to scheduled meetings, identifying what might be pertinent based on analysis of titles, contents and origins.
AI is also being used at a deeper level by some companies keen to improve productivity, on the basis that data can identify problems more objectively than people.
Betterworks provides performance management software with a view to helping firms “unify teams, monitor progress and track results”. Promising “real-time insights into employee performance”, Betterworks says it can give business leaders “actionable insights” based on what it has learned about employees’ day-to-day activities.
Is there a dark side?
If you’re alarmed by the thought that your employer might soon be monitoring your laptop use, you’re not alone.
According to the research firm Gartner, though, more than 50% of companies with a turnover above $750m are already use data-gathering tools to keep an eye on what workers are doing.
If you’ve nothing to hide, ‘Big Brother’ watching you might be of little concern, but focused, high-performing professionals still have reasons to avoid over-reliance on AI.
After all, even the most powerful machines can only process the information people give them. In the case of using AI to shore up non-discriminatory hiring policies, for example, success can be hampered by historic bias – especially if the data used in creating the AI algorithm reflects this bias.
In his upcoming book, Scary Smart, Mo Gawdat argues that AI systems make mistakes because the data they’re fed reflects our imperfect world. Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer of Google [X], predicts that by 2049 AI will be a billion times more intelligent than humans – but says that this doesn’t mean a Terminator-style calamity is inevitable.
“We are replicating human intelligence with machine learning,” Gawdat says. “Just like an 18-month-old infant, machines are learning by observing.” What we show AI is critical, Gawdat argues, as “it is fair to imagine that AI might be the last technology we humans invent… Once [systems] are smart enough, they will solve the next problem on our behalf.”
Gawdat is clear that, for all its superior processing power, the buck stops with human beings when it comes to the effects of the AI we develop. “We need to fill the world with compassion and kindness if this is what we want to pass on to future generations,” he insists. “We need to make sure that those machines work on our side.”
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