Reflections on Robot Proof

I recently finished reading the book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, written by Dr. Joseph Aoun, the President of Northeastern University.  My interest had been sparked by a panel on which Dr. Aoun participated concerning the future of work and how it will be affected by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

I’ve written previously about applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a post called “Contact Centers Get Smarter,” but Aoun’s book encouraged me to take a deeper dive into the topic. The intent of this post is to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned and consider some implications.  For context, I am a member of the part-time faculty at Northeastern after working many years within the high tech industry in disciplines which included Product Management, Information Technology, Engineering Management, Operations and Consulting.  I also have two children who been studying at universities in recent years, one in Liberal Arts and one in Engineering. So, I have a personal stake in the matters which Dr. Aoun discusses in his book.

Robot Proof  contends that as AI matures, it will have a dramatic effect on the careers of human workers. Many employment roles which have a variety of repetitive steps will begin to be either replaced or supplemented by algorithms. Thus, a key point in Robot Proof is that human workers should hone cognitive capacities where human skills and adaptability will offer an advantage. Examples of such cognitive capacities include critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility.  Another overarching theme is the importance of lifelong learning for people in the workforce at all levels.  As technologies change rapidly, workers will need to develop enhanced skills and new areas of domain expertise. Aoun also feels that the skills taught in leading liberal arts programs, such as communications, critical thinking and creativity, can also be valuable as part of one’s “robot proof” toolkit.

Robot Proof offers a lot of depth and thought on the matters of what kind of skills and literacies will be useful over the course of one’s career. For example, I’ve found that systems thinking and strong written communications skills have been very useful within my own career in enabling me to shift between different roles depending upon my needs and those of employers or clients.  Being able to make  connections across diverse disciplines and then apply them is an example of a skill that Aoun calls far transfer. Aoun also talks about the value of being  able to shift perspective and change one’s mindset to expand the range of potential solutions. So this book offers encouragement for people who have diverse interests and like to bring a generalist’s perspective into their work or creative endeavors.

Dr. Aoun also contends the university system in the United States needs to evolve from its current focus on teaching undergraduates and engaging in research, and take on the challenge of partnering with industry, government and other institutions to offer programs of lifelong learning. This would be a substantial transformation, but I believe these ideas should be in the mix in the ongoing discussion on how to make higher education both effective and more affordable.

To summarize, I think Dr. Aoun’s book offers a set of useful approaches for anybody who wonders about the future of work in an era where robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will play a greater role. The ideas here are highly relevant for current students and members of today’s workforce who want to stay competitive in their fields.  The book also poses ample challenges for the education and business communities. The value of building a “Robot Proof” toolkit of skills resonates for me as a teacher, parent and consultant. Welcome to the workplace of the near future.

What do you think?  Is your current set of skills and career path sufficiently robot proof?  To continue the conversation , please feel free to comment here or contact me on LinkedIn.

 

Contact Centers Get Smarter

Contact centers have evolved consistently over the past two decades and always seem to be utilizing a mix of both old school voice technologies and newer solution elements.  My exposure to contact centers has been as a customer, product manager for related connectivity products and as a contributor to an important SIP-based IETF standard for standardizing collection of user information. I also get to hear war stories on a regular basis from people I know who work in call centers.

One of the newest trends is to add Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the mix.  Google has recently announced their Cloud Contact Center AI solution and it’s described in some detail within a blog post on the Google web site.

Google themselves aren’t in the Contact Center solution market (yet!) and this solution is designed to complement solutions from other providers. There is a rich history of solutions provided by companies such as Avaya, Genesys, Cisco and many others that were originally all premise based, but contact center solutions increasingly have been moving to the Cloud in recent years.  A review of the blog post noted above shows an interesting mix of how AI is injected into the fray.  Contact centers are a people intensive business, as agents take incoming calls and customers get queued up until an agent is available.  Google’s Diagflow development tool enables contact center providers to create automated virtual agents who can take incoming calls and use a combination of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tools and access to databases to start interacting with incoming callers.  There are limits at this point, but the tools such as Virtual Agent (shown as being in a Beta status) can start analyzing the caller’s needs, answer some questions and determine if a handoff to a live agent is needed.

Another new tool is called Agent Assist.  Assuming that some of the incoming calls eventually do need to connect to a human agent, this tool (shown as being at Alpha level) can augment the agent’s progress through the conversation by providing tips such as relevant articles or other shortcuts.

The big picture here is fascinating. There’s been a long term debate about whether AI should replace human roles or augment human capabilities.  Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, has some interesting discussion about this from AI experts on both sides of this argument.  Google AI pursues both directions.  At the business level, contact centers employ a lot of humans and need to assist many customers via tools which can include voice, chat, speech recognition and much more.  Customers want answers or perhaps want to make a purchase. So whether AI is used to deal directly with the customer needs or help an agent to get to answers more quickly, it’s a win for the customers. For the companies who deploy contact centers, AI  offers another approach to get more productivity out of the investment they have already made in contact center solutions and in agent resources that utilize these solutions. Human call agents do add value in this equation, particularly when the issues are complex or emotions come into play, so don’t expect these virtual assistants to eliminate those roles, but over time, the trend is likely to be toward making more use of AI at various stages of the customer interaction.

If you or your company is active in the contact center eco-system, feel free to weigh in with your comments.  If your company would like advice on how trends like AI will affect strategies for providing contact center solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn or at our web site.