The era of AI, Digital Assistants and (Ro)bots - are we creating our own downfall?

Posted by  Thomas Staven

We believe we’ve already entered the new tech era of AI and Bots, just as we have been through the eras of web apps and more recently mobile apps. Over the past 12 months it’s been a central topic on every tech blog and at every tech conference. The attention this topic is getting is massive.

With AI and Machine Learning etc. comes the discussion about whether this is the first step towards making people redundant as workers while machines gradually take over the world and whether we’re essentially creating our own downfall as human beings.

Well, we don’t really believe so. We actually believe that the exciting developments and technological breakthroughs we’re seeing at the moment can be very helpful. One example could be the challenge we see around future global economic growth.

A McKinsey Global Institute report from 2015 predicts that, without action, the global economic growth will halve in the next 50 years. The key reason for this is a limited growth in the working age population (extending the number of people that work) due to less children being born and longer life expectancy. This will essentially slow down growth dramatically as growth to a major part has always been dependent on access to new labor. We already to a large degree see a rapid decline in headcount.

So, how will organizations be impacted and what can they do to mitigate this situation? Well, clearly, there is a need to find other means to increase productivity in order to counter-balance the loss of access to workers. This is where technology could play a key part.

In order to increase productivity, according to the same McKinsey report, organizations essentially have to be willing to invest in innovative technology in order to face upcoming challenges. For a start, organizations need to find ways to mitigate the labor pool’s erosion by providing a more flexible work environment for women and older workers. But they also need to find ways to attract and engage young talent, which will become more and more rare, and they need to cater for a working environment where employees will (more and more) be contingent workers, which is also a clear trend.

So, how could technology help?

Well, first of all, since there are less people available to do work, we should start addressing the productivity issue by automating as much as we can of existing administrative business processes.

Just by reducing administrative burden, we believe there is a massive opportunity to increase people’s productivity. A Workfront Survey from 2015 alarmingly concluded that only 46% of an employees work week is actually spent on the primary duties of their job, meaning 54% is spent on other things (time waste), ranging from mundane administrative tasks, emails, unproductive meetings etc. This represents a massive opportunity for improving productivity. At Unit4 we see it as our mission to change this for our customers. Our vision is to allow our users and customers to focus 100% on running their business and serving their customers and clients, focusing on their primary duties, avoiding spending time and energy interacting unnecessarily with their enterprise software. If you are a teacher you should teach; if you are a nurse, you should take care of patients; if you’re a program manager in a non-profit, you should make sure that money coming from donations is 100% spent on the cause they are committed to; if you are a professional services consultant you should focus on delivering the best solution to your clients; if you’re a team manager you should focus on the professional evolvement of your people, etc. etc.

This is why Unit4 has a “self-driving” initiative where we’re looking into how to reduce the need for manual intervention and input in any business / ERP-process. By leveraging Machine Learning, Pattern Recognition and ultimately Artificial Intelligence, the business application can perceive its environment by analyzing data, learning from people’s behavior and based on those “observations”, in combination with business rules, make rational decisions. However, we believe that the application with this approach would also become smarter in the sense that it can start to predict potential challenges and prescribe solutions, which could further help organizations to increase their productive outcome.

But how can technology help in creating flexible work environments for women and older workers as well as cater for an environment where more and more employees will be contingent workers?

By making software accessible from anywhere on any device or software, and by making solutions so simple that they require absolutely no training, an organization can deliver solutions to their workforce that addresses this challenge.

This is why Unit4 is now investing in a new way of delivering our software by more or less removing the UI, but adding AI to the mix in order to let people communicate with our software through natural language, either spoken or written. Wanda is our new Digital Assistant that will make life easy for users. They can interact with our software not only in natural language, but also through their favorite collaboration apps (i.e. Skype for Business, Facebook, Slack.com, Amazon, Echo, etc.) removing the need for any form of training.

And ultimately, by investing in technologies that appeal to young people that prefer simple, ubiquitous solutions that reflect how they prefer to communicate and work, organizations will be able to appeal to the upcoming generations of talent as well. Future young talent that can “pick and choose” their job opportunities will not settle for an employer where they experience a digital downgrade as soon as they enter the office or access their work applications. The upcoming generations will live a full work-life blend and select the employers that can provide them with the flexibility they require to mix work and personal life.

The challenges ahead will force business owners and workers to think differently. Businesses must play a critical role by embracing new advanced technologies, like embracing AI and Bots as these technologies can make a difference.

So, Unit4 does not believe that machines will “take over the world” and make people redundant, we still believe in the unique value of people as a huge contributor to productivity. However,  we do recognize that people’s jobs will change and that a lot of the mundane tasks and processes being done manually today will be best done by machines.

Ray Kurzweil, from the Singularity University and currently Director of Engineering and lead future strategist at Google has described technology as something we use to “extend our reach…just like we have always been building tools.” This optimistic view on technology as a tool was recently also shared by Dr. John Kelly, SVP at IBM Research, who said: “it is not humans vs. machines, the future is humans + machines”.

Unit4 wants to be an enabler of that future. After all we are “in business for people”.

Thomas Staven

Thomas Staven

Thomas is passionately dedicated to technology innovation and delivering great experiences and business value to customers and has spent the last 16 years within Global R&D/Global Product Management and Global Sales at Unit4 in driving the ERP vendor's focus on delivering innovative enterprise solutions.

Currently Thomas is driving the Unit4 ERP strategy and working closely with the Innovation Lab as Product Strategist, all to deliver the future ERP and bring innovative technologies such as machine learning, AI, chat bots etc. to the world of Business Software.

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