Preparing to face the robots (hint: it’s not as bad as you think)

Over the years there has been a growing, perpetuating anxiety around the technological advancements of automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Many people are now questioning whether the human race has metaphorically ‘shot itself in the foot’ by creating technology so powerful that it could ultimately ‘take over the world’.

With COVID-19 causing national lockdowns and remote working, many businesses were catapulted into a digital transformation strategy they may not have been prepared for. Not only this, but a newfound concern for stricter hygiene and less mingling has encouraged many businesses to turn to technology to lend its socially-distanced, robotic hand.

Business Reporter gathered insights from six technological experts on why and how they have seen the pandemic act as a catalyst for an accelerated ‘robot revolution’ and where this leaves businesses.

Automation with a purpose

First, Stephen Roostan, VP EMEA at Kenna Security, warns against rushing to roll out new technologies for the sake of it, and advises how companies can ensure they are best prepared:

“Of course, lowering the cost of certain processes by implementing new technologies will certainly help to some extent, but it’s important that organisations remember that automation doesn’t necessarily equal efficacy. The key is to know which are the right processes to automate.

“Before deploying new technology, enterprises should take the opportunity to rethink the process and reassess its value to the business. Getting it right from the outset will ensure that automation becomes an effective tool to measurably increase efficiency and optimise costs.

“Another consideration that IT teams need to keep in mind is the value that it can bring to collaboration. Automation and data science can be used to enable different and disparate teams to work together, using agreed definitions and trusted tools. It can bring visibility across enterprises showing which teams are under pressure and where additional resources are needed.

“Never forgetting that the human element is still essential to successful businesses, organisations need to be wary that technology is there to support employees and that it doesn’t come at the expense of creativity. There is so much value in receiving different opinions: different experiences, ages, characters that all work together to solve problems and create solutions.”

A customer service reboot

It speaks volumes that, according to the CBI, nine in ten workers will need to learn new skills or be retrained entirely over the next decade. It seems there is a staggering number of people in Britain – 21 million in fact – who currently lack ‘basic digital skills’. Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO & Co-Founder at Content Guru, says that, “Now is the time to bridge the gap between the new technologies and roles they’ll create, and the workers we need to fulfil them.”

He continues: “Although this digital skills gap existed before the pandemic hit, it has been brought into even clearer focus by COVID-19. One of the effects of the pandemic has been to fast-track automation and AI technologies as a matter of necessity in industries everywhere – and nowhere more so than the contact centre sector, where some 1.4 million Britons currently work. Advancements in automation, AI and Natural Language Processing are opening up new and entirely more fulfilling contact centre roles for humans – provided those humans are ready and able to play their part.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that AI should assist human contact centre workers, rather than replace them. We work to develop AI technology that integrates easily into digital customer channels, speeding up decision making and making it easier for contact centre workers to provide customers with the most relevant products, services and information for their needs. We think about augmented, rather than artificial, intelligence. This means AI acts more as a personal assistant to the human worker rather than a malevolent interloper looking to take the human’s job.”

Richard Buxton, Director at N4 Engage, also sheds light on the benefits of AI in communications tools and boosting customer engagement:

“According to Gartner, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025, and automating this often repetitive digital communication just makes sense. Utilising the latest in AI and ML technology not only delivers information in a timely, accurate, slick, and repeatable way, but is also sophisticated enough that communications can transition from a bot to a human seamlessly, without losing that feeling of a human interaction. 

“For example, imagine you’ve got a query about a delivery, you go onto webchat to ask a question about where an order is and a bot can identify you and your order and interrogate the backend system to give real time info and update. The bot can learn from other customer experiences to predict what a customer might ask next/what the interaction will look like which makes it quicker, and if the bot can’t answer a query it can seamlessly transfer information to a human agent with context so the customer doesn’t have to start again. Most interactions can be dealt with by bots. Bots aren’t replacing humans, just adding efficiency and freeing up agent time for more complex queries.

“Agents are needed less as bots can manage most queries, so the quantity of agents can be reduced, saving the businesses’ money. What’s left is agents that are more knowledgeable – and a workforce that is changing to become more expert, with less people just reading from scripts. With COVID-19 as an accelerant, the workforce is moving from a service role to a development/technology role, and so businesses need to focus efforts on building advanced technology skills. To be clear, bots aren’t right in every case. COVID-19 has increased the need for human interaction, as people are likely more emotionally charged and will look to humans who understand emotion, there’s limited face-to-face contact allowed day-to-day so those feeling isolated may prefer real human interaction over automated bots. But, we still need automation to be able to answer the simple questions such as ‘I want a refund’ or ‘where is my order’, and we will continue to see this accelerate as the pandemic shapes a new digital age.”

The power of video

In the video surveillance industry, automation and AI are helping businesses to change from being reactive to proactive. Rishi Lodhia, MD EMEA at Eagle Eye Networks, explains:

“These technologies can intelligently identify what is happening at any moment in time and take the most appropriate action immediately. Cameras used to be fairly simple – they would record footage and it would be saved on tape or a hard drive on-premises. Now, with the technology that is made possible by integrating the cloud, surveillance cameras are making society a safer place for all and are a source of business intelligence that can improve operations and customer experience. The cloud has the potential to learn quicker about what should be done in specific circumstances as the footage from multiple cameras can be analysed in one central location, compared to gathering insights from video that is captured by one camera only.

“And it’s making a difference. Take the measures that are implemented around the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks or keeping to smaller social groups (or no socialising at all). Integrating AI with cloud-based video surveillance enables rules like these to be monitored in real-time and could, for example, deny access of an individual to a building by locking an entry door if the person isn’t wearing a mask, thereby ensuring the laws are upheld and no one is put at unnecessary risk.”

Jim Darragh, CEO of Totalmobile, expands on the positive effects that AI video technology is having for field workers: 

“Mobile workers in utilities, social care or housing repairs found COVID-19 made a lot of their day-to-day tasks difficult to complete. However, some organisations and authorities have now turned to technology to change that. For instance, gas boilers that won’t fire up are being diagnosed over video to save an initial call out and make sure that when an engineer is needed to visit, they have the right parts and are in and out as quickly as possible. Often a call out can be avoided altogether in this way.

“‘The robot revolution’ has enabled augmented video solutions, allowing specialists to remotely identify and discuss requirements with people in their homes – without the risk of spreading the virus. It has facilitated contactless smart locker deliveries, which allows completely contactless and secure deliveries of business or personal items. Technology has even played a pivotal role in aiding employee wellbeing, with the creation of mobile apps that give remote workers the opportunity to provide regular updates on their mental and physical health for HR teams.”

Greater job satisfaction

‘The robot revolution’ has become increasingly topical over the past decade, with automation, AI and ML forecasted to radically transform the workplace as we know it – and acting as the root of anxiety for many. 

However, Samantha Humphries, Security Strategist at Exabeam, concludes with why this ‘revolution’ is something to be embraced:

“According to Exabeam’s 2020 Cybersecurity Professionals Salary, Skills and Stress Report, 88% of cybersecurity professionals believe automation will make their jobs easier – simplifying cybersecurity work, helping to reduce response times, and bolstering defence. However, whilst automation improves business productivity and outcomes, there is the growing concern that people will become displaced by machines in the workplace – indeed almost half of workers believe automation is a threat to their jobs.

“With heightened concerns around ‘the robot revolution’, security leaders should reassure staff members that automation improves outcomes and provides advancement opportunities, rather than eliminating jobs. For example, with machines replacing lower-value activities, such as data inputting, employees are able to focus on managing high profile strategic projects.

“Automation creates possibilities for growth, and senior leaders should communicate these possibilities across their organisation, taking an active interest in their team’s career paths and ongoing education. By investing in employee training, workforces are able to develop agile workers and create new job opportunities – who are able to embrace, rather than fear, emerging technologies.”

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© Business Reporter 2021

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