FEATURE | AI in the Workplace


Technological advancement is a main driver of economic growth, productivity, and operational efficiencies. Today, these technological advancements are largely in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (a subset of AI) – the ability of machines, through the use of algorithms, to interpret data, predict outcomes and learn from successes and failures. This technological development, known as the 4th Industrial Revolution, is going to bring enormous change to how we live and work.

This feature will explore how machine learning (AI) – which is not regarded as true AI (robots with sentient abilities) – is impacting the workplace environment and changing the way we do business. The feature also explores some of the available technologies that are driving the change such as the cloud, big data and analytics, processing power, bots, virtual assistants, augmented reality and more.

What is driving AI in the workplace?

Quantum leaps in computer processing power, the exponential growth in big data and investments in technology has seen AI-enabled systems flourish in the past few years.

Vian Chinner, Xineoh CEO, says the key difference between the 4thIndustrial Revolution and its predecessors is that rather than replacing basic functions, this new shift in computing power means machines can essentially augment our frontal cortex functioning, making complex decisions and interpreting abstractions in ways never before conceived.
Machines are, in essence, mimicking some of the behaviours associated with human intelligence.

According to the Accenture/Gordon Institute of Business Science 2017 report Artificial Intelligence, Is South Africa ready, emerging AI technologies include natural-language processing, computer vision, machine learning, audio processing and expert systems.

These self adaptive technologies, says the report, combine with data-mining and pattern-recognition to enable AI solutions such as:

  • virtual agents (online chatbots taking the place of call-centre agents);
  • cognitive robotics (robots that can learn from experiences and the environment);
  • speech analytics (software that recognises speech patterns);
  • identity analytics (solutions that help define access to critical data and systems);
  • recommendation systems (social media marketing and content targeting); and
  • data virtualisation (retrieval and manipulation of data by an app).

Steven Ambrose, CEO of Business Angels Consulting, says current developments in AI are the result of big data, connectivity and processing power. “With connectivity now being ubiquitous, businesses are increasingly using structured and unstructured data about their customers, employees and market to operate in more strategic ways. The enormous increase in processing power is enabling the writing of programmes that can process all this data extremely quickly into intelligence that offers business insights.”

Rudeon Snell, Leonardo Lead of SAP Africa, says AI will enable businesses to drive better business outcomes by improving decision-making. “The best types of business decisions are grounded in the ability to synthesise complex amounts of data and derive outcomes that provide improved chances of success. And that is where AI is set to excel.

“AI will also be able to eliminate the need for humans to perform low-level repetitive tasks, operate 24/7 improving productivity, improve accuracy of outcomes by simulating scenarios at scale and help automate processes that today take resources, effort and time but don’t contribute much to the top or bottom line of organisations.”

Is South Africa ready for an AI future?

Rory Moore, Accenture South Africa’s Innovation Lead, says AI and machine learning is going to revolutionise how businesses compete and grow, introducing a new production element that can significantly increase profitability.

But warns Moore, South Africa must build competencies to participate in an AI-driven future. “Numerous structural deficiencies remain, hampering South Africa’s ability to fully integrate new technologies into the economy. Those weaknesses include the quality of education systems and scientific research institutions as well as weak innovation ecosystems at national level and poor enabling infrastructure to support growth.”

He adds that South African companies find themselves encumbered by legacy technologies and systems, business models and corporate structures as well as sunk investments in antiquated infrastructure – all with workforces that may not be ready for the AI revolution that is already underway across the globe.

“It’s critical that businesses act now to develop strategies around AI that put people at the center and commit to developing responsible AI systems that are aligned to moral and ethical values that will drive positive outcomes and empower people to do what they do best – imagine, create and innovate,” he said.

Steven Ambrose, CEO of Business Angels Consulting, adds that the advent of machine learning will require businesses to restructure their operations completely. “Systems and processes of the past are not going to work with these new technologies.”

According to new research by Citrix, 92% of businesses in South Africa’s key industry sectors agree that digital adoption directly impacts profits, however, 54% remain unprepared for the future. Mercer research reveals that 88% of companies in South Africa have innovation on their core agenda this year, while 96% are planning organizational design changes. “Executives recognise that it’s the combination of human skills plus advanced digital technology that will drive their business forward,” says Ilya Bonic, President of Mercer’s Career business.

Blessing Ningiza, Mazars Gauteng IT Audit Manager, says while artificial intelligence systems provide extremely accurate outputs and sometimes exceed human effort, they do not replicate human intelligence. “We need to recognise the strengths and limits of this different form of intelligence and build an understanding of the best ways for humans and computers to work together.”

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Read this Feature on AI in the Workplace by Max Marx, as well as a host of other topical management articles written by professionals, consultants and academics in the June/July 2018 edition of BusinessBrief.

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