Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are all the rage these days, and for good reason. The technology behind once too-good-to-be-true tools like facial recognition and 3D printing has advanced by leaps and bounds. Many of us own or pine for “smart” devices and use dozens of apps a day for personal purposes. So what about business? How far can automation and AI help boost productivity and profit at work? And what are the no-go zones for this exciting area of development?
First, Some Terms
“Automation” and “AI” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. “Automation” refers to processes that can be undertaken through a chain of events that trigger each other, without human interference. We’ve seen it in manufacturing for decades. Simple contemporary business examples would be Hootsuite or Buffer, the programs that help automate a business’s social media participation.
“Artificial intelligence” refers to machines undertaking processes and making choices, on their own, based on their programming and what they learnfrom it. There are different levels of AI, and the most powerful two—levels at which a machine can understand human thoughts, and be self-aware, respectively—have not been reached. So what can be accomplished now?
The Digital-Assistant Revolution
While C-3PO from Star Warsor Ava from Ex Machinaare not in our immediate reality, AI is a driving force behind many business applications.
Personal digital assistants like Siri and Cortana are good examples of AI-driven programs that can boost productivity, save time, and facilitate our lives. With one of these programs you can delegate scheduling, play music, and check the stock market, all without typing, thanks to voice recognition capabilities. Pen, paper, and typing can be eliminated from the entire process.
Google Duplex is a newer digital assistant that takes automation to a whole new level. It makes calls to humans to schedule appointments, request information, and order food. Instead of speaking with a typical robotic tone, Google Duplex mimics real speech patterns and uses fillers like “um” and “hmm.” Plus, this bot interacts with human responses and can carry on a conversation. Probably for this reason, its reception so far has included a mixture of awe and trepidation.
Proceed with Care
Caution might be needed for that type of digital assistant, especially from ethical and privacy standpoints. Should a human receptionist know he is talking to a machine? Is he being recorded so that Google can learn from the exchange? Nevertheless, most of the tasks accomplished by Google Duplex involve little personal risk. If your haircut gets scheduled at the wrong time, it would be a nuisance, but probably not a big loss.
However, some types of AI-driven programs must be approached with caution when it comes to business because of the risks involved. For example, in language translation, the technology cannot yet match the human capacity for communication. Automatic translation engines are great for getting the gist of a letter or website, but using them for business can result in embarrassment, misinformation, and even financial loss. Most companies put time and money into writing compelling and clear texts; foreign-language copy requires the same attention. Despite recent advances in deep learning, machine translation is not like Google Duplex—it does not “sound” human, much less eloquent. More importantly, accuracy is seriously compromised with automatic translation—just think of all the menus with indecipherable items like, “The water fries the potato” and signs that say “Beware of safety.”
The same caution is needed for verbal translation, or interpreting, which has made headlines with programs that combine machine translation with voice recognition. Holding a conversation with someone in a language you don’t know by using “translator earbuds” might work for casual exchanges with inconsequential outcomes. However, if you need to speak to an employee about her performance or to an international branch manager about next quarter’s sales goals, you cannot rely on AI to accurately transmit your message. Between speech recognition flaws, cultural differences, and the incredible creativity behind any human being’s speech, it’s best to stick to a professional interpreter for bilingual business communication.
Lawyer Up or Bot Up?
If creative speech is one reason not to trust the machines, what about legal discourse? Does it make sense for a business to rely on automated contract-writing programs or document-reviewing apps? As with many machine-based applications, such programs can work, albeit in a limited context for limited purposes.
AI-driven programs will review legal documents at a fraction of the cost of a lawyer. This review process takes humans significant time, and lawyers take years to master it, yet computers have apparently learned the skill. That said, even app’s websites make it very clear that the apps will not provide legal advice, and that it should be used only for the specific purpose of reviewing documents. The formulaic language and boilerplate nature of legal documents lends itself well to AI, and frees up time and money for actual legal strategy. In some ways, it’s similar to translation—you can get some entry-level tasks done, just not anything that requires tactics or nuanced meaning. And of course, nothing that involves any risk to your business.
Look Both Ways Before You Leap
Next time you see an ad for a new app that looks like a miracle cure for what’s ailing your business, by all means don’t ignore it. There are many good applications for automated and AI-driven programs. Just be sure to research the program and consider its uses. The more complex the task, and the more it involves human reasoning, the less likely it will work for business, at least in an all-encompassing manner. Work patterns and skills are certainly changing, but the bots are not taking over just yet.
About the Author
Elena Langdon is a certified Portuguese>English translator and interpreter and an active member of the American Translators Association. The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters in more than 100 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services providers and consumers alike.
ATA is Making News
ATA provides content for professional and trade publications to spread insight to a wide range of readers. This article appears in the following publications:
- Article Weekly (July 12, 2018)
- Inside Business: Hampton Roads Business Journal (August 24, 2018)
- Connections Magazine (August 29, 2018)
- Canadian Vendor (October 15, 2018)