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AI in the Workplace: Say hello to your newest co-workers

By Henrik Christensen, PhD, Qualcomm Chancellor’s Chair in Robot Systems, Director Contextual Robotics, UC San Diego; ROBO Global Strategic Advisor


For years, the hype around artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace has centered around one thing: the potential impact on the human workforce. But as AI evolves and organizations continue to discover new ways to apply the power of AI in nearly every facet of industry, perceptions are quickly shifting away from viewing AI as a threat to employment toward seeing AI as a tool to help improve efficiency, increase effectiveness, and even make the work we do more enjoyable than ever. The icing on the cake: AI is creating new jobs for human workers as it takes on the ‘dull, dangerous, and dirty work’ we’d prefer to hand over to the ‘new guy’—no matter where we work.

AI is increasing workplace efficiency

The impact of AI-driven factory automation has already changed how our supply chains function and, as a result, the expectations of consumers worldwide. Amazon famously began using Kiva robots in its factories back in 2014 to accelerate the process of picking and packing orders at its massive warehouses. The retail industry hasn’t looked the same since. But while factory automation is continuing to improve with the use of AI and robotics, this is just one of the many ways AI is helping to create more efficient workplaces—often in unexpected ways.

Remember the days when every meeting had someone assigned to diligently record the ‘minutes’? Today, AI is being used to automatically transcribe meetings of every size and scope, freeing up the note takers of the past to add greater value to the discussions. In healthcare, AI is already being used for everything from predicting equipment maintenance to helping radiologists detect cancer faster and more accurately than in the past. Soon to come: learning algorithms will enable more comprehensive and connected reporting, as well as streamline workflows to significantly improve patient care.

In the industrial sector, AI-enabled cobots work alongside welders, assemblers, and other technicians, protecting them from injuries related to repetitive movements and the use of dangerous equipment. These robotic co-workers both improve equipment efficiency and enable human workers to get their jobs done faster and more easily than ever before. Airlines depend on the power of AI to help ensure air safety and airplane maintenance, track baggage, manage flight delays, and assign crews to thousands of flights operated every day of the year. AI helps truck lines optimize loads, routes, and driver assignments to reduce transportation costs and help ensure driver safety. In nearly every industry and every geography, AI is taking operational efficiency to a new level of excellence.

AI is driving the effectiveness of a human workforce.

While few people appreciate robocalls—computerized systems that autodial massive quantities of phone numbers to deliver a pre-recorded message—every consumer appreciates great customer service. Systems like Cogito, an AI-driven program for real-time conversational guidance and analytics, are helping companies improve how service reps communicate with customers. At insurance giant MetLife, Cogito listens to calls and provides immediate, on-screen feedback to let reps know if they are talking too fast or failing to show appropriate empathy. Once the call is complete, the system sends notifications and statistics to the rep’s supervisor to determine if any additional coaching is needed. Has it helped? According to MetLife, the app has increased its customer satisfaction by 13%. Cogito now has more than 20,000 users in healthcare, retail, and financial services.

Similarly, Amazon uses AI to help track worker productivity, and IBM has used its Watson AI platform to help predict future employee performance with a reported 96% accuracy rate.

In the world of finance, AI is driving widespread disruption in an industry that was ripe for change. While there is no shortage of human traders both on the trading floors and off, according to a recent study by research firm Coalition, electronic trades now account for nearly 45% of revenues in cash equities trading. The reason? AI can process millions of data points in real time to capture information that traditional statistical models simply can’t. From assessing compliance risk to identifying market trends to ranking individual stocks, AI is transforming the work of finance.

AI is driving greater effectiveness for medical researchers who are using gene sequencing and medical diagnostics to predict disease, identify innovative treatments, and even discover new drugs. It is making the entire spectrum of legal work more efficient and affordable by giving legal teams the ability to sift through thousands of pages of complex case information to help find that singular detail—the needle in the haystack—that can make or break a case. The next step: Using AI to arbitrate agreements and even make formal legal judgments based on legal data.

AI is making work more enjoyable.

Every one of us hopes for enjoyable work. Over the past decade, AI-enabled robots have been helping turn that hope into a reality for many workers by taking on many of the ‘dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs’ that not only put humans at risk, but also make their work anything but enjoyable. Scraping sewers. Inspecting deep-ocean pipelines. Cleaning up nuclear contamination sites. Jobs like these are ideal for AI and robotics, and far less for human workers. But AI is helping make work more enjoyable in myriad ways that are far less dramatic.

Last year, Walmart began using janitorial robots to sweep aisles and scrub floors, as well as to move goods around the warehouse floor. By bolstering its workforce with AI assistants, the company has been able to lighten the load of workers by several hours a night, and has made it possible to shift the focus of its workers to more enjoyable jobs focused on customer service.

The scenario is proving typical. While robots and AI are bound to eliminate certain types of jobs, they are not expected to put human workers out of work. On the contrary, by taking on less desirable jobs, robots are freeing up humans to do the things that only humans can do—tasks that require creativity, innovation, and the critical thinking required to identify a problem and figure out an appropriate solution. According to the latest Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum, AI algorithms and machines are expected to create 133 million new roles in the workplace and displace 75 million jobs by 2022. The projected total of new jobs: 58 million. That’s something every worker can be happy about!

The promise of AI is that it will complement and augment what we humans can do on our own and, ultimately, make our jobs more efficient, effective, and enjoyable. The fact that AI is disrupting nearly every industry in every region of the world makes this a not-to-be-missed opportunity for investors. In our homes, on the road, and in the workplace, AI is here to stay. As AI technology continues to evolve at a stunning pace, the companies that are driving innovation in areas like machine learning, computing and AI processing, sensing, actuation, voice recognition, and robotics will see greater demand, greater growth, and greater revenues. It’s an equation that may make investors who act now the happiest of all.


Also in this series by Henrik Christensen, PhD:

Who’s that knocking at the door? AI has finally come home

AI is hitting the road—and not only in self-driving cars

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