Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Is AI out to get us?

by Deepinder Dhingra, head of products & strategy at Mu Sigma

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are often described as the harbingers of a new industrial age. They are helping transform the workplace, but understandably, a lot of people are worried about what this may mean.

They might have read that AI is going to change, or even completely take over, their jobs but I think they’re falling victim to scaremongering. In my experience, AI is helping rather than replacing us.


The advent of the chat bots

What many people don’t think about is that AI is in use in many businesses already.

Sometimes this is obvious, like when we get a cold call with a pre-recorded message. However, there are much more sophisticated AI applications, for example in customer services. Have you ever called a bank and given your account number and the reason for calling before being passed on to a human? The AI here uses natural language processing to optimise your customer experience.

The customer service part of any industry is known for being time-consuming, which is why so many people dread calling their bank, electricity provider or the tax man. AI is increasingly being used – perhaps not quickly enough – to reinvent how customer service is delivered.

Some companies are going one step further by implementing machine learning to allow them to better understand customer behaviour and therefore provide better customer service. If this means a quicker and more pleasant call with my utility company, I’m happy and so are most people. What’s not to like?

One company I’ve seen implement AI well in customer service is The North Face. When customers open the website, a chatbot asks what they are looking for and then directs them to the best options.

This can save shoppers going through pages and pages of search results if they already know what they want – whether it’s a backpack, ski jacket or tent.

AI isn’t replacing anyone’s job here, but it is providing a better service for customers.


Queue busting

Other business departments are also making the most of AI.

Business process management (BPM) is another area where I see the benefits of AI, with no risk to human jobs. Generating operational efficiencies has long been a buzzword, and I’m seeing more and more companies invest in BPM systems as a result.

These systems use the insights from real-time analytics to improve operations, corporate performance and efficiency.

Take, for example, food stalls at a sports event. There tend to be long queues, especially at half time. What makes this worse is that one stall might run out of something and have long queues, while another outlet could have a surplus and experience low demand.

When I have a short amount of time to get my snacks and get back to my seat, I want to know where the shortest queue is, and AI can help direct me to the best stand to buy from. Of course, this doesn’t replace the human server behind the counter.


Detecting cyber risks

My final example to reassure anyone who thinks the robots might take over relates to cyber security. It’s impossible for people to track patterns and deviations to help keep customer data safe. Machine learning allows AI to monitor cyber risks and deploy defences in real-time.

This means finding and counteracting cyber threats much more quickly than even the greatest data scientist ever could.

The bottom line is that there’s really no need to be afraid of AI in the workplace. It doesn’t replace jobs like the spinning jenny did in the Industrial Revolution, but instead does things humans can’t.

At the end of the day, the human touch is still necessary: there is only so much you can achieve in customer service using automated processes; ultimately you will have to talk to a person.

Even when it comes to business operations, AI can only make recommendations. It’s still up to people to implement them. This will lead to what we call augmented intelligence: humans working together with artificial intelligence to create the best of both worlds.

We’re only seeing the start of what AI has to offer and I suspect that as it develops further, the line between humans and technology will become finer as man and machine learn to work together.

However, ultimately, AI is here to help us better manage and grow our businesses. Everything else can stay in the realms of sci-fi films.