Welcome to the machine

Artificial intelligence is already changing the way we work. What does the future hold for this technology that once seemed the stuff of science fiction?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Just in case there’s any doubt that in 2019 machines run our lives, take a look around the office the next time the power goes out or the internet is down. You’ll find a whole lot of people wondering, “What do I do now?” Artificial intelligence, or machine learning, isn’t just the next wave of technological advancements to impact the way we work — it’s already here. While the prospect of smart machines working alongside humans may unsettle some, local experts say we’d better get used to it. AI, as part of the Digital Revolution, is going to impact all facets of business, and that’s a good thing.

“I firmly believe that over the next five to 10 years — maybe even sooner — that this technology will become engrained in our daily lives, and we will eventually reach a point where we can’t remember what it was like to live before this technology existed,” says Nick Myers, creative director for Sun Prairie-based RedFox Creative, a marketing agency that specializes in voice-first strategy and Alexa/Google Assistant skill design, development, and deployment. “Where we are currently with voice is like where we were in the mid-to-late 1990s with the internet and in the mid-to-late 2000s with mobile and smartphones. For younger generations that have never lived before these technologies existed, and even for older generations, many people wonder how they went so long without having access to what we have today.”

Robot domination

A 2017 post on Quora, a question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, edited, and organized by its community of users, asked, “What would happen if humans lost 50 percent of all the jobs in the world to robots?”

In a response, user Glenn Luk upped the stakes — “Let’s take this question to the extreme: What if humans lost 90 percent of all jobs in the world to robots, automation, and technology? We’d be where we are today.”

Luk’s reasoning?

  • One hundred years ago, the overwhelming majority of people in the world worked on farms. Thanks to the invention and widespread adoption of technology, it’s now possible for small minority of farmers (2 percent in the U.S.) to provide food for everyone.
  • A little more than 100 years ago, millions of jobs were devoted to the primary mode of local transportation: the horse-drawn carriage. None of those jobs exist today.
  • Seventy years ago, the railroad industry employed roughly 3 percent of the U.S. workforce. Today, the railroad industry employs just 0.1 percent of the workforce, although it moves nearly three times the amount of freight around the country.

Those are just a few examples of ways technology eliminated jobs once performed by humans, and yet humans continue to find ways to work. We might not be able to work in the modern world without those machines, but the machines also still need us.

“You will never truly remove the entire human factor from AI,” notes Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek, CHRO, co-founder of Contracted Leadership and president of Disrupt Madison and Disrupt Milwaukee, and a bit of a technology evangelist. “AI will need someone — a human — to learn from. I believe we have really only scratched the surface regarding the capacity of what our human brain can and will do.”

AI will increase our cognitive capacities, by helping us in our daily lives with tasks that take our mental energy and by automating our learning, Woodman-Holoubek continues. “Exponential technology will improve our quality of life and our brain, but we need to remain aware and not let it take us over. I don’t mean the human race, I mean us as humans. We have to consider if these technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and the like that are powered by AI will mean that we could potentially lose our touch on knowledge mastery, reality, and our rationality?

“With proper regulations from independent bodies — not governments — there will always be a human watching out for other humans, at least, in our lifetime,” Woodman-Holoubek adds.

Upending HR

As a human resources professional for nearly 20 years, Woodman-Holoubek has an interesting perspective into the way businesses recruit, hire, train, and evaluate employees. In her opinion, the next decade could see the removal of the human element from the majority of each of those processes. Rather than being wary of that prospect, she welcomes it.

“It’s hard to imagine all the ways AI could impact HR processes in the next 10 to 20 years,” opines Woodman-Holoubek. “We do know that AI will allow for mundane, repetitive HR functions to be automated and optimized, create efficiencies in workflows, focus on the employee experience, gather data for predictive and people analytics, and allow HR professionals and workers the ability to achieve exponential growth in their learning, development, careers, and happiness within the next five to eight years. As well, AI will allow for some surprising impacts in the core HR technology architecture, in addition to making chatbots, robots, and holograms our co-workers.”

Sound like science fiction? It’s already happening.

“Our economy will be vastly improved by incorporating AI and removing some of the human factor.” — Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek

According to Woodman-Holoubek, AI can comb through large sets of data on job boards, in databases and social media profiles, and keys to access digital identities on the blockchain. With this capability, it will allow us to have “almost perfect” job and project-matching with efficiency and massive cost savings. “Platforms like Indeed, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor are currently optimizing this, as well as sourcing tools from companies such as Entelo, TalentBin, Gloat, Orderboard, and Hiretual, which are helping companies find hard-to-locate candidates,” she explains. “This includes locating internal candidates, as well, which are now one of the biggest sources for new jobs created by automation and robotics.”

During the interview process, she adds that we can expect AI facial recognition to allow interviews to be more authentic and transparent. AI that currently is being developed can read facial expressions that may not necessarily be in line with the answers candidates provide, potentially avoiding “bad hires.” Chatbots can also answer general queries and teach us what to look for in good hires, as well as what to look for in good questions.

According to Woodman-Holoubek, the independent categories of search, matching, candidate relationship management, and recruiter analytics are likely to merge into one over the next five years. PhenomPeople, a platform combining all these categories, is currently working on this technology.

“AI will also allow individuals and organizations to customize training, learning, and employee evaluation programs,” Woodman-Holoubek notes. “IBM is trying to build out its own family of talent applications, including IBM Watson tools for assessment, career planning, job coaching, salary planning, and interfacing with its human capital management platform. IBM’s CHRO says that the company’s internal use of AI has had a dramatic improvement in employee career management and salary administration. The system now recommends career moves and salary changes based on patterns of success within IBM, demand in the outside market, and demand for skills inside IBM.”

On top of that, Woodman-Holoubek expects AI desk assistants or “co-workers” to be able to conduct filtered chats to improve learning outcomes based on content and learner preference. This in turn would help continuous virtual learning systems in the organization guide the learners, organization, or trainer to revamp learning models and AI dimensions, and then the AI learning could update the models in real time. These processes could also tell the organizational system if a skill gap or job void exists, triggering the AI system to find a job or skill match to recruit.

“I’m in favor of automating the recruiting and hiring process for better job matching, for elevated candidate communications, and for cost and time-saving on both the part of the organization and the candidate,” says Woodman-Holoubek. “Our economy will be vastly improved by incorporating AI and removing some of the human factor. Forty-five million people in the U.S. change jobs each year, and that figure jumps to 180 to 225 million people worldwide. Every time someone changes jobs there is a candidate search, a set of interviews, assessments, job testing, background checks, and an enormous amount of effort and time for face-to-face meetings that eventually yield an offer or two or three depending on the candidate pool, and then onboarding, which if done properly takes six months to a year. All of these steps can be automated with AI.”

Although AI has vast potential to remove implicit and explicit bias from the hiring and evaluation process, it’s still only as good as the people programming it. “In the HR tech world, we have a saying regarding the algorithms and learning of the AI — junk in is junk out,” says Woodman-Holoubek. “If we are expecting unbiased hiring from AI right now, we have to closely look at our organizations. We are nowhere near ridding our organizations of bias enough that a machine could learn to be unbiased from us. As well, how do we know that the coder or coders who built the underlying code does not have biases?”

How and where we use, treat, and protect the data that employees give us is of utmost importance and must be considered with every technology decision, she adds. If we expect employees and workers to give us their data sets around their skills, talents, and learning, then we must know that they expect we will give them something of value in exchange. If expectations are not met on the employer end, there can be huge societal consequences. Will we erode the trust in our economic system of employer and employee — the employment contract? Will data breaches be catastrophic?

“Organizations may want to establish ethics-related positions or review boards as a part of their AI efforts to guide businesses on such issues as algorithmic bias and the impact on consumers of AI applications,” she states.



Machine makers

The age-old argument against automation is that while it may save corporations money, it’s at the cost of people’s livelihoods. Entire factories are now filled with advanced robots assembling the cars, computers, and just about everything else we use each day, including things that used to be put together by human hands.

However, smart machines aren’t removing humans from the workforce at all, argues Buckley Brinkman, executive director/CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. Instead, they’re just changing the way we work.

“Every time new technology is introduced, the need for workers has increased rather than decreased.” — Buckley Brinkman

“I think that this technology could mean that we have fewer jobs in the economy going forward, but it would be the first time in history that technology created fewer jobs rather than more,” says Brinkman. “Go all the way back — every time new technology is introduced, the need for workers has increased rather than decreased. We’re arguing a bit of an historical issue. We’re arguing the last war rather than the next one. I think we’ve seen already the hollowing out of a lot of the middle class, mainly because there are very few ways that you can earn a family-supporting income with a strong back and a good alarm clock anymore. Instead, these jobs continue to evolve and if you aren’t keeping up with the curve of technology and how it applies on the factory floor, then you’re behind the game.”

Brinkman believes we already do a pretty good job of that in Wisconsin, notably because employers have begun to realize it’s not as easy as it was a decade ago to say, “Bill doesn’t have the skills anymore, so I’m going to get rid of him and hire Sue who does have them.” Bill may not have the skills, but Sue’s also not out looking for a job anymore, Brinkman notes. Companies are beginning to realize it’s a lot more cost effective to redeploy employees rather than cut them loose because there’s no one at the door to replace them.

“The companies that are looking ahead are definitely doing that,” explains Brinkman. “If you’re sitting there saying I’m bringing in this robot so that I can replace three workers and then cutting the workers loose, that’s a little bit short-sighted if you have a growing company. In fact, the leading-edge companies are actually using their employees to do the research on what technology to engage, where to engage it, and the investment model behind it — the ROI. I think that’s a pretty cool.”

With almost anything, Brinkman notes manufacturing is a little slower than the cutting-edge industries. Part of that is just because of the fragmented nature of the industry. Ninety-eight percent of the manufacturers in the country — almost 99 percent in Wisconsin — are small or medium sized, he notes, so it causes a couple of things.

“One is a lot of manufacturers just plain aren’t awake, they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on,” says Brinkman. “For the rest of them, they really have to get a ROI fairly quickly, so the investment that they make can be only relatively modest. That’s a serious obstacle. So, as you look at manufacturing across the country and in Wisconsin, the application of AI is really spotty.”

Brinkman is quick to point out that Wisconsin does have some spots where it’s doing a good job. “I think when you’re talking about leaders, you have to include Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation in that group. If you’re talking about the education side, what they’re starting to do at the Connected Systems Institute in Milwaukee is starting to push the front edge of that to bring it back into practical applications. But by and large, you’re talking about guys there who can throw a couple of million dollars at something, as opposed to a smaller manufacturer who may struggle to put $5,000 in. So, it’s uneven.”

One thing that could propel the entire manufacturing industry in Wisconsin forward is Foxconn. According to Brinkman, Foxconn is accelerating Wisconsin’s drive into the future. “When you’re talking about their strategy that aligns artificial intelligence — 8K visuals and the 5G capacity to carry all that data — that’s really one of the strong spines that not just manufacturing but society in the future is going to follow,” he states. “The thing that I get frustrated with about the discussions around Foxconn is the incredible focus on this factory and what’s going to be made there and how many people are going to be employed putting together screens. The bigger story is can we build an ecosystem in Wisconsin that really takes advantage of this new technology because it’s going to be the place where the next wave of computing happens.”

According to Brinkman, the next wave of computing will center on AI, or manipulating large amounts of data. “Manufacturing creates somewhere north of 90 percent of all data created,” says Brinkman. “There are a lot of experts who say the next wave of computing is going to take place on the manufacturing floor. If we look at Wisconsin’s base in manufacturing, combined with its other resources — education and research — we really have an opportunity to leapfrog to the front of the class in terms of being a state where people look to us to be leaders in this area.”

Looking forward several years, Brinkman sees plenty of opportunities to make that leap. “There will continue to be opportunities in manufacturing, and the connection that a lot of people still miss, especially in a community like Madison, is that technology is driven by manufacturing and not the other way around,” he notes. “Sixty-seven percent of all R&D in the U.S. is funded by manufacturing, so it’s a huge part of what happens in the tech world.

“Having said that, I think that by necessity there will not be a large growth in the number of people working in manufacturing, but the output will continue to grow just as it has in the past,” Brinkman adds. “The jobs will continue to evolve to those that require more expertise than just showing up. They will require some technical expertise, some computer expertise, and probably in a lot of cases, business knowledge.”

The companies that embrace the change are going to have a very bright future, Brinkman predicts. The companies that choose to keep their head in the sand are likely to be made obsolete by those that are moving forward. “Foxconn just catalyzes all of that,” he observes. “It was going to happen anyway, but with Foxconn in the picture it’s going to happen a lot faster.”

Working with AI

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “work spouse,” the co-worker/close friend who becomes a de facto significant other between the hours of 9 to 5. Is it so far-fetched to think that “person” could someday soon be synthetic rather than flesh and blood?

“Eventually we are going to see an ecosystem of voice assistants that is embedded within all our technology.” — Nick Myers

Nick Myers of RedFox Creative is working on a pet project that he believes will be ready for primetime this June 5 at the Disrupt Madison conference. In essence, Myers is building a custom Amazon Alexa skill/app that will allow Alexa to be a dynamic “co-host” and help announce speakers throughout the event, as well as offering information on Disrupt Madison and Disrupt Milwaukee. “At this time, there is a lot of supplemental information that will be needed in order or build what we want from the ground up,” Myers says, “but I am positive that we can have the skill designed, tested, and deployed by the time Disrupt Madison happens in June.”

Why is this a big deal? At the moment, there are four key voice assistants in the marketplace for both consumers and enterprise to use — Alexa, the Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Most people are familiar with Alexa and Google Assistant due to the widespread consumer adoption of each assistant, notes Myers, and both Amazon and Google’s aggressive marketing campaigns that have more or less targeted the everyday consumer.

Through RedFox Creative, Myers specializes in voice-first strategy and Alexa/Google Assistant skill design, development, and deployment for brands of all shapes and sizes. Essentially, RedFox operates on a Voice-as-a-Service (VaaS) model, taking care of everything for the client when it comes to voice (i.e., design, development, testing, deployment, and maintenance). RedFox also specializes in helping organizations optimize their web content and content marketing strategy for voice search offering consulting and optimization services. “It is critical that businesses start thinking about how they can best start doing this, as by 2020 more than 50 percent of all search will be done via voice,” explains Myers.

Myers isn’t being hyperbolic when he says the overall the market for AI and voice is infinite. “Every person and every industry will be impacted by it in some way,” he predicts. “We are already starting to see some great case studies of brands that have begun to leverage the technology to connect with their customers, and the positive results that they are seeing. Butterball, Tide, Pizza Hut, Xbox, and even Culver’s right here in Wisconsin have a presence on voice and are beginning to see the shift in how their customers engage with them and search for information.

“Eventually we are going to see an ecosystem of voice assistants that is embedded within all our technology — TVs, appliances, cars, etc. — that helps make carrying out simple day-to-day tasks almost seamless, allowing us to focus on other things.”

However, in 2019, Myers believes the difficulty in making this technology truly functional for brands isn’t so much the technology itself, but how businesses can leverage an ROI from being present on it.

“I ask people all the time, would you have invested more in mobile back in the late 2000s? Almost everyone says yes,” notes Myers. “The same can be said for voice. It always has and always will be about reaching people and generating experiences where they spend most of their time. As we head into the next decade, I am 100 percent confident that voice will become one of those primary spaces. Overall, I am welcoming our new robot overlords with open arms.”

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