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Nuclear technology can power an entire city or flatten it. Artificial intelligence is similar, in that it can be used as a tool for great good or a weapon for greater evil. For example, we’ve all read those gloomy reports about AI causing mass unemployment — but they assume that AI will entirely replace people in the affected jobs and that AI will rapidly advance to allow a totally autonomous enterprise. False, all of it.

The truth is that AI can’t do the all of the work even when it comes to jobs that have high potential for automation. Most jobs still require some amount of human intelligence, and employers want to make the best use of it possible. Rather than pitting man against machine, the real challenge for business is integrating “software robots” into the workplace to eliminate the mind-numbing tasks that erode productivity and prevent people from doing more valuable work. In this sense, rather than stealing jobs, AI gives every worker in the world a virtual assistant. Here’s how you can enhance human productivity using such assistants.

Delegate busywork

Copy and paste. Click and drag. Categorize and extract. Imagine how much time is burned on “swivel chair” work that a brainless pair of hands could do on cruise control. Like a tireless personal assistant, a virtual assistant can let people focus on more strategic, creative work, which improves job satisfaction and performance and drives customer satisfaction and top-line growth.

Just like people, these virtual assistants come in a range of capabilities. Most truly routine tasks can be done by the simplest bots of the lot — a capability based not on AI but on rules-based programming called robotic process automation (RPA). RPA is easily configurable, lightweight, flexible process automation that can be applied by business people. RPA follows invariable rules to perform tasks that involve structured data (think Excel, not Word). Software bots are particularly well-suited to data- and transaction-intensive industries like banking, insurance, and health care, but RPA can digitize swivel chair work and improve the quality and speed of simple business processes in almost every industry.


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Avoid costly mistakes

A single mistake can cost reputations, customers, or billions of dollars. What if these costly mistakes could be avoided by either automating the high-volume transaction where they happen or by pairing the people who make them with a digital checker to prevent flubs? Smarter virtual assistants powered by AI can validate the work of people and in many cases, like processing insurance claims or business invoices, automate the work of finding and extracting data from endless documents. This is the work of cognitive bots, which are powered by machine learning, the practical branch of AI. Cognitive bots are essentially virtual assistants for knowledge workers that can learn the patterns of judgment work.

Like a human assistant, cognitive automation trains on historical work and by watching in real time how people perform various tasks — like extracting an address from an invoice, detecting the sentiment of an email message, or determining the intent of a question in a customer service chat. People go about their work while cognitive bots learn from and assist them until the bots can take over work that follows a pattern, however variable.

Deliver 24/7, personalized customer service

Customers expect to be able to reach a service provider at any time, through any channel, without waiting for more than a few seconds, and they expect to be understood without explanation. Far too often this is a pipe dream for both customers and service providers, because staffing a business with enough customer service agents to handle every conversation with speed, accuracy, and personalization is too expensive. That’s where virtual conversational agents (VCA), or chatbots, come in.

By ingesting large volumes of historical conversations between agents and customers, chatbots are trained to engage in text conversations with customers, answering and asking questions to determine and deliver on the intent of a customer — like checking the status of an invoice or sending historical bank statements for a mortgage application. A business powered in part by chatbots will improve its capacity by up to 25 percent within six months, and agents will be able to focus on surprising and delighting customers with better, more personalized service when human intelligence really counts.

Do more by doing less

AI is to modern business what electricity was to businesses in the 1900s. There will soon be no such thing as a successful business that doesn’t work with AI. There will be soon be no such thing as a person who isn’t made more productive and more human by AI. This new wave of intelligent automation removes constraints that have kept both businesses and people from growing by pairing every person in a business with a virtual assistant that removes tedious work, improves accuracy, and pushes humans to aim higher by automating the work that is beneath them. Imagine if, overnight, every single person on the planet was twice, even three times more productive thanks to virtual assistant at their service. In short order, we won’t have to imagine.

Adam Devine is head of marketing for WorkFusion, where he leads market development, product and brand marketing, and strategic partnerships.

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