How can enterprises realise an AI-empowered workforce?

A new era of human and machine collaboration is set to impact the workforce. Here we discover what businesses need to do to enhance their AI readiness and empower rather than displace their people

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 14 April 2020
How can enterprises realise an AI-empowered workforce?

Is your business ready to embrace artificial intelligence (AI)? At a recent event, Microsoft’s head of AI urged business leaders to get their heads around the applications and ethics of the technology, saying that over the next decade, every company is going to become led by AI.

Speaking at Australia’s Future Briefing event in February 2020, Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president of Microsoft AI, said that AI has the potential to be more of a game changer than any technological advance that has come before it; it is the next technology set to “run the world.” 

“Software has transformed every industry; you hear it all the time – every company became a software company,” Azizirad said. “But that’s really changing because AI is now a totally different way to create software.”

Numerous studies highlight the expected significant economic impact of AI in the coming years. Research company McKinsey claims that AI has the potential to deliver additional global economic activity worth around US$13 trillion by 2030, while global consulting and technology company Accenture forecasts that by 2035, AI could double annual global economic growth rates. This would be driven largely by a strong increase in labour productivity and the creation of a new virtual workforce capable of solving problems and self-learning – creating a new relationship between man and machine. 

If businesses are to thrive and help turn these forecasts into reality, they must master the art of human/machine collaboration and put powerful AI applications in the hands of knowledge workers to increase productivity and performance. The key to success, experts say, is not to use AI to replace employees, but rather use it to enhance their productivity and make them more effective in their roles. Indeed, a 2019 Forbes Insights study commissioned by Microsoft, Everyday AI: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Empower the Knowledge Worker, indicated that if businesses want to get the most from AI, their efforts should focus on three key areas: eliminating repetitive tasks, streamlining decision-making and providing new insights.

Working in partnership with Microsoft, businesses are already infusing a wide range of business processes with AI to empower their workforce. According to the latest figures, Azure AI, the cloud platform via which Microsoft offers its AI services, now has more than 20,000 active paying customers and more than 85 per cent of Fortune 100 companies have used Azure AI in the last 12 months. 

One customer is energy management business Schneider Electric, based in France, which is using Azure Machine Learning – Microsoft’s predictive analytics tool – to minimise the time its workers spend analysing complex internet of things (IoT) sensor data. Using the automated machine learning capabilities within Azure Machine Learning, Schneider Electric’s data scientists can be more selective about the data models they work on and aggregate their predictions in just a few days rather than the months it took before. 

“All the data scientists on our team enjoy using Azure Machine Learning service,” said Matthieu Boujonnier, analytics application architect and data scientist at Schneider Electric, in a Microsoft case study. “Why? Because it’s fully interoperable with all the other tools they use in their day-to-day work, no extra training is needed, and they get more done faster now.”

Predictive analytics is also helping to improve worker safety by reducing the number of oil field site visits engineering and maintenance teams need to make: the less often crews venture out to fix oil field equipment, the safer they are. The company can help its customers identify problems before they happen, too. “We use Azure Machine Learning service to give our customers the information they need to be more efficient,” Boujonnier said. “And problems on a rig can have devastating environmental impacts. With predictive models, we can help local operators detect dangerous conditions before environmental harm occurs.”

Danish beer brewer Carlsberg, meanwhile, is applying AI in the form of sensors and analytics to help its researchers more quickly map out and predict flavours. 

The collaboration between Carlsberg Research Laboratory, Aarhus University, the Technical University of Denmark and Microsoft involves developing sensors, implementing them in different fermentation scenarios and analysing the signals from the sensors using AI solutions. Taking advantage of machine learning algorithms, researchers can then see what kinds of flavours and aromas different combinations of yeast and other ingredients produce.

“It may sound nice to have to taste a lot of beers every day, but we create hundreds of small ­microliter brews and beers, in such small volume that they’re not really testable,” said Jochen Förster, director and professor of yeast and fermentation at the Carlsberg Research Laboratory, in a Microsoft case study. “So we realised that if we had sensors that could tell us at the outset if the yeast is really going to be usable later in large-scale beer production – and that could recognise the chemicals and flavour compounds to predict what a beer will taste like – that would really help our research a lot.”

Beyond the Carlsberg laboratories, AI is being harnessed to help scientists and medical professionals address global challenges in health at scale. In January 2020, Microsoft launched AI for Health, a five-year programme that will focus on three core areas: accelerating medical research to advance prevention, diagnoses and treatment of diseases; increasing knowledge sharing to protect against global health crises; and improving access to care for underserved populations.

“There are real health issues in which AI can play an important role, and it may be our best option to accelerate research or expand the reach of new solutions, especially in areas that may lack attention from the commercial health sector,” said John Kahan, chief data analytics officer at Microsoft, in a blog post. “For example, technology can help scale screenings for diabetic retinopathy – an issue facing 463 million people – to expand the reach of ophthalmologists, as there are only 210,000 in the world. Or in cases such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, where it is tough for organisations to invest in research given the size of the affected population, but there are huge knock-on effects to better understand and mitigate against general infant death.”

The applications of AI are having a positive impact on the financial services sector too, particularly when it comes to helping professionals understand how markets behave. UK bank NatWest is working with Microsoft and AI specialist DreamQuark to simulate financial markets, transport networks and other environments to help workers better spot risks and opportunities. This involves using simulations and machine learning to look at the impact of different scenarios within the Buy-to-Let mortgages market, and the effects of price elasticity within the small business loans market. Armed with detailed insights, staff can then evaluate the suggestions made by the platform and decide whether the conclusions would lead to a better financial performance than more traditional modelling methods.

In retail, AI is being used to enhance the consumer experience and help staff engage with customers in more meaningful ways, rather than having to focus on administrative tasks. During his presentation at the National Retail Federation’s annual show in January 2020, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson spoke of the importance of human connection and explained how his company is using AI technology to free up more time for staff to spend with customers. 

Deep Brew is Starbucks’ AI-powered initiative created with Microsoft. Its capabilities include automatically calculating inventory and replenishment orders for each store, and predicting staffing requirements so Starbucks can add workers where needed, when needed. The company is also looking into the potential of voice technology so that baristas can easily communicate with the Deep Brew app yet concentrate fully on the customer.

“Deep Brew will increasingly power our personalisation engine, optimise store labour allocations and drive inventory management in our stores,” Johnson said. 

According to the Forbes Insights report, four out of five business executives agree that AI is already having a transformational impact on workflows and tools for their knowledge workers. Another study by Microsoft, carried out in partnership with the University of St Gallen and the Altimeter Group, found that the companies getting the most from the technology have leaders which are committed to motivating and investing in employees. They recognise not only the value of AI but the impact that uniquely human qualities have on the success of their company too.

In many ways, then, AI’s greatest asset could be to free up business leaders and their workers so they can use their time to be more human.  

“As AI helps leaders tackle operational tasks more effectively, they can better shift their focus on empowering their people,” said Michel van der Bel, president of Microsoft EMEA, in the March 2019 LinkedIn article ‘How will AI change what good leadership looks like?’. “This means trusting people to approach challenges in their own way and ensuring they are equipped to be at their best. In short, leaders can more effectively shift from being managers to mobilisers.” 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issues delivered directly to your inbox.

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