Last month TMC (News - Alert) posted a Q&A with business communications industry analyst Jon Arnold (News - Alert) – who will be moderating The Future of Work Expo early next year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Now we’d like to share the second part of that conversation.
Jon is a veteran analyst who’s been following the VoIP and unified communications and collaboration spaces over the years. And he’s starting to see technologies like artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning, and natural language processing influence what’s happening in these and related eras.
Here’s part two of my The Future of Work Expo discussion with Jon.
Part one of our Q&A addressed the early implementations of AI and ML in business communications. What’s the Holy Grail?
Jon: On the enterprise side, the Holy Grail would see AI serving as a high-end personal assistant for each and every employee.
Imagine how streamlined our jobs would be if we all had an admin ‘person’ handling all the details just like they do for senior executives. If or when AI gets good enough, chatbots would talk to each other to manage our schedules and set up our meetings. Who wouldn’t want that?
Another workplace Holy Grail is for AI to do true knowledge management, where intelligence is actually added to the task of prioritizing all the information, messages, requests, tasks, projects, etc. from our overloaded inboxes, so we can spend more time doing real work rather than (barely) managing our schedules.
For contact centers, the Holy Grail would be where AI-driven chatbots take self-service higher up the value chain, whereby agents only handle the most difficult inquiries. Not only will that help optimize resource planning for contact centers, but it can make for a better customer experience. Related to that is the use of AI for customer journey mapping, not just when dealing with the contact center, but also for improving their experience when looking to make a purchase as well as the buying process itself.
What are some of the key barriers to getting to this nirvana?
Jon: As noted before, it’s all about trust. While millennials are more inclined to embrace new technology and engage with chatbots, older generations will be more skeptical. Nothing beats the human touch, and in time, AI has the potential to come close, but we have a long way to go.
Many companies are investing major R&D dollars to get there, but if the benefits don’t materialize, they’ll move on to other technologies and opportunities. AI has had a few false starts to this point, so there is no guarantee that the time is now. The underlying technology is very complex – and impressive – but it’s all moot if end users don’t come to trust it.
The trust factor actually has two elements. First is trust based on performance – how accurately can AI understand language and human intent? Yes, this improves over time, but AI needs to get to a certain level that people will trust it beyond simple requests that don’t really add much value. The second element is Big Brother, which comes into play if/when AI gets to be so good that it makes decisions for us without our input, or becomes too intrusive in terms of tracking everything we do, write or say.
One of the key concerns we hear about AI is it’s potential to eliminate jobs for humans. What are your thoughts on that?
Jon: It’s a valid concern, and there absolutely will be jobs lost. Clearly, tasks that are low-skill or easy to automate will become AI-driven, so those jobs are vulnerable. In some cases, this is actually a good thing, as chatbots or robots can take on tasks that pose danger to humans or are inherently stressful.
On the other hand, the fears are overblown in terms of wiping out entire job categories. For example, IVR didn’t replace all agents, and ATMs haven’t replaced all bank tellers. If anything, automated options give customers more channels to engage, and that’s something that businesses want. Yes, some low-skill jobs will be displaced, but for those who can upgrade their skills, AI can help them become more valuable employees by allowing them to spend more time using critical thinking and creativity to solve problems and support customers.
In terms of addressing this, employers – especially contact centers – should present AI in this positive light so workers will welcome it. Conversely, if it’s introduced simply as a way to automate tasks to reduce costs and make employees only work harder or faster, it will be viewed as a threat, and that’s not going to end well.
You and I worked together in creating the program for The Future of Work. One session you suggested is called “From VoIP to the New Voice”. What will it be about and why is it important?
Jon: I’ve been writing about the ‘new voice’ for some time now, as it will be important for IT decision-makers to think differently about communications technology. The legacy paradigm of a hardware-based phone system that is separate from other applications is outmoded today, and the value of voice is no longer defined solely by fixed line telephony.
IT needs to see the bigger picture, especially in terms of how digital transformation is impacting the workplace. Person-to-person communication will remain central for how things get done, but AI is opening up a new channel in the form of person-to-machine communication. This is starting to take shape with the likes of Alexa for Business, and our panel will explore how this ‘new voice’ can be used to leverage AI for new forms of workplace productivity that are additive to how voice is currently used with telephony.