Artificial intelligence (AI): the ghost in the machine. The mere mention of it evokes apocalyptic scenarios in which the human race has become enslaved or made obsolete by machines turned either evil or amoral (Terminator, 2001, The Matrix, and Ex Machina—to name just a few). Some people fear such a dystopian future, while others imagine an alternate universe into which we can upload our very consciousness and achieve immortality.
Humanity is equal parts ambivalent and uncomfortable when faced with the idea of AI, but it’s hard to escape the fact that it’s already well on its way to becoming an important aspect of how we work and live. It’s making significant strides with the advancement of machine learning, in which machines are developing the ability to learn independently. During this time frame, we’ve also seen the arrival of the first self-driving cars and virtual personal assistants, some of which are coupled with stand-alone speakers that take our commands and requests at home and the office.
Society and the workplace
Although there’s a debate underway about the proper role of artificial intelligence in society, some observers argue that it has the potential to enhance the work currently being performed in knowledge-based industries. In this vision of the workplace, AI would provide a supporting role to knowledge workers, augmenting their productivity by performing complex calculations and analyses on large data sets that would take humans far too long to interpret.
It could also dramatically advance the progress of fields such as health care and surgical robotics, for example, helping doctors make faster and more informed decisions based on a rapidly expanding body of knowledge. Since IT is most definitely knowledge work and a natural home base for technology, it might be an ideal candidate for the introduction of AI. This nascent workforce could eventually be tasked with a range of IT roles, from the help desk to technology education, freeing up IT professionals to focus on higher-level projects that spearhead business innovation.
A match made in the matrix?
IT is in a tough spot, being asked to generate greater business value while remaining lean and efficient. Many IT teams wish they could hire more staff, and AI could conceivably step in to lend a hand. Virtual technicians could be employed to perform first-line help desk duties, screening incoming tickets and contributing to quicker first-call resolution. They could also be tasked with analyzing patterns in tech support requests to more effectively address the underlying problems that create a large percentage of incoming tickets. Or, AI could serve as a customer-facing information librarian, helping users to find their own solutions in a more advanced version of today’s knowledge base.
Network security is an ongoing challenge for IT; and AI contributes to the effort to keep an office’s network both reliable and secure. It could be dispatched to take on tasks like QoS management or remote office provisioning, navigating changing network conditions and dynamically responding to proactively heal the network. Or, a sophisticated future AI could be deployed to monitor network security, alerting human IT staff when a breach has occurred and quickly analyzing a range of potential resulting scenarios and their business impacts.
The artificial educator
One often neglected aspect of IT is user training. With limited resources at their disposal, small IT teams sometimes don’t give this important component of technology service delivery the attention and focus it deserves. Perhaps in the future, artificially intelligent instructors could teach users how to navigate the technology their business depends on. There’s already an entire field of educational technology called adaptive learning, in which computers personalize learning experiences to an individual learner’s unique needs. Coupled with advanced AI, this dimension of education could become a powerful asset to the IT team of the future.
Artificial intelligence and big data
The IT shop of the past was focused on maintaining systems reliability and keeping the lights on, but IT is increasingly expected to focus on the strategic management of information. Big data plays a major role here. Most businesses are struggling to figure out how best to tap their data for business benefit. They simply don’t know what questions to ask of their data to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and small businesses don’t yet have the budget to employ the expensive data scientists who can help them figure it out.
Meanwhile, the IoT is exploding, collecting exponentially larger pools of data to be interpreted. Virtual assistants could help businesses analyze and understand patterns in data assets to identify areas of opportunity for growth. This would help IT facilitate much more rapid and advanced strategic business decision-making than is currently possible.
Open questions about the future
As a society, we haven’t begun to have a serious conversation about what it would mean to have artificial life forms cohabiting with us at work and at home. Many people, IT professionals among them, bristle at the idea of a marketplace in which human labour is rendered obsolete and human beings face large-scale unemployment.
As with many other aspects of technology, the legal framework for handling AI is far from clear. Businesses will need to have a cogent understanding of their objectives in employing it, as well the regulatory environment governing its use, before stepping forward into this brave new world. Although artificial intelligence has not yet evolved to a level at which it can be reasonably compared to human intelligence, it’s wise to begin giving thoughtful consideration to the questions surrounding the technology, both ethical and practical, to properly prepare for its arrival in the workplace.