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The intelligent workplace

The automation of intelligence through technologies such as machine learning and AI is transforming jobs and working environments across all sectors.

Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 7 min read

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  • While some are warning the rapid development of ever-smarter machines could lead to disastrous outcomes for humanity, others predict a digital nirvana, where heavy lifting and monotonous jobs are a thing of the past
  • The AI-related consulting and system integration (C&SI) market is estimated to be worth $500m (£390m), with an expected triple-digit growth rate
  • Artificial intelligence is already having significant impact on the customer experience, through the use of chatbots and cognitive computing techniques

Most of us are aware that our workplaces are continually evolving. Few, if any, work environments or jobs remain static for long. Some of this change is driven by cultural, political and social factors, but by far the biggest driver of change is technology. And today workplace technology is developing at an accelerating rate that, depending on your view, is either exhilarating or alarming.

Much of this development is connected to the next great wave of automation, which will focus on the automation of intelligence. Machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing are at the heart of a workplace revolution that is transforming all aspects of work across all sectors. These technologies present both challenges and opportunities for employees and employers.

While workplaces have been changing at an ever-increasing pace since the industrial revolution, the automation of muscle that took place then arguably posed fewer challenges than the automation of intelligence does today. Nevertheless, many observers perceive negative reactions to AI as merely an instinctive protectionism – the latest example of the Luddite tendency that bemoaned the replacement of the horse with the car.

A brighter, better workplace?

There are certainly plenty of experts warning of potentially disastrous outcomes from the rapid development of ever-smarter machines. And, when it comes to AI and machine learning, the potential for developing human-level machine intelligence (HLMI) can lead to some scary forecasts.

In his 2015 book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom discussed the development of such high-level AI in apocalyptic terms. “Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb,” he wrote. “Such is the mismatch between the power of our plaything and the immaturity of our conduct.”

Bostrom later told the Financial Times why this matters so much: “This is not just another cool gadget or another nifty little thing. It’s the last invention humans will ever need to make.”

But there are others who see such technology as offering hope, creating a brighter, better workplace. In this digital nirvana, computers and robots will not only do the heavy physical lifting, but also take away all monotonous jobs, leaving people to focus on more creative and rewarding work.

However, long before we achieve the theoretical breakthroughs that might lead to HLMI, and way before computers start to think for themselves, there are smaller, but nevertheless significant, changes already happening. It may not threaten the future of humanity yet, but AI is already changing organisations and workplaces.

Focus on users’ needs

For advisory firm Accenture, the focus on whether man or machine will ultimately win out is somewhat misplaced. In its Technology Vision 2017 report, ‘Technology for people: the era of the intelligent enterprise’, it suggests we should be looking not at whether machines can or might replace us, but rather how man and machine can better work together. The real power of technologies such as AI, according to Accenture, lies in how they can be marshalled for the good of all, with programmers focusing from a project’s inception on users’ needs, rather than the pure possibilities of any one technology platform.

Volume is another business focused on the practical implementation of technologies such as AI, machine learning and cognitive computing. “AI isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi movies; it’s here, now,” said a spokesperson. “AI is set to revolutionise the world today, just as the internet did over two decades ago. Early adopters will gain a significant advantage by looking at how AI can improve the capabilities of their organisation.”

“AI isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi movies; it’s here, now. Early adopters will gain a significant advantage by looking at how AI can improve the capabilities of their organisation”Lusy, Volume

If that all sounds a little stilted, it’s because it wasn’t a person speaking, but Lusy, described by Volume as the “world’s first cognitive website”. Considerably more engaging than the average corporate website, Lusy is able to answer most queries about Volume with distinction, offering this summary of the company’s work: “Volume’s vision is to become a leader in cognitive, automating the first touch and extending the self-service cycle through AI and machine-learning technologies.”

On a more detailed level, Chris Sykes, Volume’s founder and CEO, explains that a generic term like AI actually represents a range of complex and developing technologies. “AI solutions may involve one or more advanced technologies, such as machine learning, deep learning, natural-language processing, computer vision and reasoning,” he says.

And, as a recent paper from analysts Gartner highlighted, much of the activity in this field is still at a very early stage. “Organizational buyers are doing exploratory work and proof of value around AI. Some 11% have implemented at least one solution leveraging some aspects of AI.”

Improving the customer experience

Nevertheless, Gartner estimates the AI-related consulting and system integration (C&SI) market to be worth $500m (£390m) currently, with an expected triple-digit growth rate. Volume’s Lusy is indicative of one area where AI is having significant organisational impact, namely customer experience. Investing now in chatbots and cognitive computing techniques can improve efficiency and enhance an organisation’s reputation for innovation. These technologies are also able to communicate, often in multiple languages, with a potentially infinite number of customers at once.

But beyond customer engagement, more products themselves will be embedded with AI, making them able to learn about their owners’ preferences to personalise the experience. Such investments can place a business on the front foot, ready to capitalise on the next generation of technology as it develops out of the laboratory and into the real world.

But this technology is also shaping businesses in less obvious ways. While the ‘first touch’ customer interface matters, it is often lots of unseen back-end systems and processes that determine the quality of a customer experience. Here, there are huge opportunities for organisations to invest in technology that allows them to interrogate vast amounts of customer data. The Gartner report highlights a number of activities in this area, including learning systems that use data mining and pattern recognition to make sense of huge quantities of data, predict events and make probabilistic recommendations.

Automation without disruption

One company bringing AI to life for some of the UK’s largest businesses is Thoughtonomy. It aims to move beyond the simpler types of robotic process automation, using cognitive computing and machine learning to enhance or even replace the workforce with what it calls the Thoughtonomy Virtual Workforce. This flexible platform uses intelligent automation to replicate the way people work in existing applications and systems, mimicking or improving on the processes they follow and even the decisions they make. The aim, says the company, is “automation without disruption”.

While big data and enhanced analytics, driven through technologies such as machine learning and quantum computing, will continue to shape business processes, it’s clear where most attention will be focused. While stories about automated warehouses may grab the odd headline, they’re likely to be far outweighed by more media-friendly, customer-facing bots and drones.

To find out more about how AI is reshaping the workplace, speak to your relationship manager for an invitation to the NatWest Technology Conference on 13 September 2017, featuring a panel discussion with Andy Ellis, head of strategy and innovation, NatWest; Emma McGuigan, group technology officer, Accenture Communications, Media & Technology; Chris Sykes, CEO and head of AI & robotics, Volume; and Terry Walby, CEO, Thoughtonomy. The discussion will be chaired by Michael Hayman MBE.

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