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Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace: The Future is Now

In 2018, artificial intelligence – or AI – is thoroughly integrated into our everyday lives, whether its through the voice-activated virtual assistant in a corner of our kitchen, the smart fridge that tracks our grocery shopping and plays our favorite music, or the maps app we tap every evening to work out the shortest route home. Increasingly, AI is shaping and changing our workplaces, too. But while its simple enough to ask your virtual assistant to check the weather forecast or find a recipe for spaghetti bolognese, understanding the AI trends that are revolutionizing business and impacting the way we do our jobs is a more complicated proposition. Here at Doodle, we’re excited about AI: we’re already implementing it, and we see its potential for the future. In this 2-part series, we’ll take a look at key trends in AI, how they’re impacting the workplace now and how they’re likely to shape the workplace of the future. To start with, we’ve put together a quick explainer: what is AI? What are the key innovations in the field currently? And how are workplaces already using it?

To understand how AI is already impacting the workplace, it’s crucial to understand what AI is, and how it’s developing. So here’s the deal:

The term Artificial Intelligence was first used in 1956, about the same time that scientists and programmers first got excited about Neural Networks – basically, computing systems that are inspired by the network of the human brain, and can be programmed to perform simple, logical tasks. From the 80s, as computer processing powers increased, we entered a key phase of Machine Learning, where computer systems are fed quantities of data which enable them to independently ‘learn’ a task without being specifically programmed – we have machine learning to thank for Deep Blue, the AI system from IBM which famously beat world champion chess master Gary Kasparov in a 1997 chess match. Now, the focus is on Deep Learning – moving beyond logical or task-specific reasoning, AI systems are now ‘learning’ how to manipulate and learn from data in an intuitive and holistic manner, a process which has brought about rapid improvements in speech recognition and translation technology among other things.

All these advances bring us ever closer to AI systems that perform human processes in a natural, interactive manner – something that the field of Cognitive Computing specifically works towards. These days, key areas of cognitive computing are Computer Vision – where machines learn to recognize the content of an image or video – and Natural Language Processing – where machines learn to understand and generate human language.

Clearly, the rapid advancements in AI technology spell changes for the workplace – but it’s not time to hail our robot overlords just yet! A time when machines routinely work independently alongside humans is a long way – a very long way – off. For now, most workplaces are using AI to assist with specific tasks, in a way that streamlines and enhances the work done by humans. So, how is AI already being implemented in the workplace?

Bots and Virtual Assistants

These days many people are likely to be on a first name basis with a handful of bots and virtual assistants, like Siri, Alexa, and Meekan – and if you haven’t already met Meekan, Doodle’s chatbot, get introduced here. But these three are just the tip of the iceberg. More and more, firms are seeing the value in deploying bots and assistants in the workplace as the new technology takes over tedious and time-consuming tasks and frees up employee’s time for more challenging and creative work.

Currently, there’s a trend towards using bots and assistants to streamline internal communications and processes, particularly in HR and IT departments. Rather than fielding the same standard questions from employees with queries about their holiday allowance or minor difficulties with their company laptop, these overworked departments are outsourcing to bots. Similarly, many companies have simplified their onboarding processes by making bots available to help new hires, by answering questions, providing feedback, and even giving simple tutorials.

Other bots are lightening the administrative burden by taking on tasks like scheduling and coordinating meetings. Our very own Meekan is the world’s smartest AI scheduling assistant. He can schedule a meeting to suit all invitees through a simple chat interface. And he doesn’t just look for the first available time. Meekan knows your schedule and routines, and those of your colleagues, meaning he schedules meetings at the optimal time. Assistants and bots aren’t just streamlining internal communications, either: the customer service industry has enthusiastically embraced bots. And why not? Chatbots are on call 24-7 to answer customer queries, and in cases where they aren’t able to help immediately, most bots are able to intelligently redirect the query to an employee in a relevant department.With their capability to perform repetitive and time-consuming tasks like scheduling, it’s no wonder the new assistants have been embraced by so many firms.

IOT

Another key trend in AI? IOT, or the Internet of Things. Put simply, the IOT is comprised of everyday objects connected to the internet. This means they can be remotely operated – and they can communicate with each other. And smarter devices make for a more comfortable, convenient, and intuitive workplace – and many offices are already onboard. Many modern workplaces are outfitted with smart heating and cooling systems, which use cloud-enabled sensor technology to respond to office temperatures. Increasingly, workplaces are adopting IOT devices like smart desks, which learn your habits and monitor your activity: they can tell you if you’ve been sitting down too long, for example, and encourage positive, healthy work habits. And IOT hasn’t neglected the most important devices in any office: new innovations include smart vending machines that can alert suppliers when they’re running low on essential treats and smart coffee makers, that can have a fresh pot waiting for you the moment you walk in the door.

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Meet Pepper

Robots

Over the past decade, the idea of robots in the workforce has gone from Jetsons-esque futuristic fantasy to reality – though, for now, most robots are deployed in industrial contexts: their precision, ability to consistently perform repetitive and sometimes tedious tasks, and their durability, has seen them successfully introduced as workers in factories and warehouses. And with spending on industrial robots exponentially increasing, its safe to assume this is one trend that’s here to stay. But what about robots in the office? In some workplaces, the first coworker you greet in the morning might be a robot. SoftBank Robotics is behind Pepper, the robot receptionist, who sits at the front desk in certain offices and hotels, to greet and direct staff and clients and help them with their queries. But while your workplace might not be about to ditch the receptionist for a robot any time soon, you might start seeing telepresence robots in your weekly catch-up meetings – that is, if you haven’t already! These bots revolutionise remote working: typically comprising a video screen attached to a robot’s frame, they not only allow remote workers and offsite clients to patch into meetings via videoconference, thanks to inbuilt sensors they also enable their operators to move around the room and interact with the space as if they were physically present. These gadgets don’t come cheaply – on average they cost between $8000 and $10 000 – but more and more firms are finding that they’re worth the outlay.

No matter whether you’re excited about the potential of AI in the workplace, or you elect to approach it more cautiously, one thing is clear: it’s set to fundamentally transform the way we work. What does this mean for the workplace of the future? In the second part of our series, we’ll share our predictions for the opportunities and challenges that this rapidly evolving technology poses.

By Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin.

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