There are few technologies that cause as much controversy as artificial intelligence. It’s seen as a magic wand that can enhance a company’s growth and capabilities beyond anything human workers could accomplish. It’s also viewed as a Pandora’s box that society may regret ever opening.
Both sentiments are steeped in healthy doses of hype, and frequently, misunderstanding. As this powerful technology becomes ubiquitous, the need to embrace the realities and benefits of AI is an imperative for business leaders looking to streamline processes, better serve their customers, and spark new opportunities. And, while many may be tempted to implement these tools like any other technology, it’s becoming clear that humans are at the heart of unlocking the potential of AI.
This was certainly the case when Microsoft recently embarked on using their own technology to create AI-powered bots that could improve the tech giant’s customer service and sales processes for licensed products and cloud services.
Here, Microsoft’s senior channel marketing manager, Chris Kauffman, and Michael Hollar, global lead of AI and cognitive services at North Highland, a global management consultant, share AI insights from the project—a rich case study for any business interested in the technology.
FastCo.Works: What are the critical components that need to be in place before a company can even consider adopting AI successfully?
Michael Hollar: Leadership. Leaders committed to thinking and behaving differently, who are willing to work across teams and structures. They have to build and inspire their team to understand the good that lies on the other side of these implementations. Getting that alignment upfront and pointing towards a shared goal is essential.
FCW: What is Microsoft trying to accomplish with this AI initiative?
Chris Kauffman: We have a globally distributed sales force for our licensed products—22,000 people, speaking different languages, in different countries. We wanted a tool that would allow them to quickly and easily answer frequently asked questions that had been taking up a lot of their time. We were able to create a bot in just 14 weeks that can be operated by a sales or business person, rather than an engineer. It’s built on a cool product that any businessperson can use called QnA Maker, part of Microsoft Cognitive Services.
MH: Microsoft has a large portfolio of products and we’ve developed a bot ecosystem where bots are learning from other bots, but also from the employees, who help train them and make them smarter. The bots in turn help the employees do their jobs better, and free them up to do more of what makes humans essential: creativity, innovation, and decision-making.
FCW: There’s a lot of confusion about AI. What do employers and employees need to understand about it?
CK: Microsoft’s goal is to use AI to amplify human ingenuity and help people become more productive and efficient. The people we’re looking to support with the bot, they have business acumen and the ability to build relationships. We use the machines to do repeatable things that machines are good at—like providing answers to frequent questions, and turning data into usable, easily accessible information. This will help employees improve their ability to help customers.
MH: You need to come to the situation with an open mind. People who are open, who want to use what’s inherently human and learn and grow, they’ll have success. It’s people who have a fixed mindset and think, “This is what I do, this is my job, I’ve done it for 15 years. That’s not going to work regardless of the technology”—those are the people who will run into problems. That’s just not the way our economy works anymore.
FCW: Where does your passion for AI come from?
CK: This is super nerdy, but I’m a huge science fiction nut and grew up watching the original ‘Star Trek.’ I was always jealous that Captain Kirk could just turn and say, “Computer,” and she would give a very specific answer. He never had to search for information.
I’m not an engineer; I’m a businessperson. I’m really interested in how artificial intelligence can make things easier for people like me. I can use Microsoft Cognitive Services QnA Maker and Bot Framework to create a question-and-answer bot on my own. The democratization of this type of technology is incredibly exciting.
FCW: How do you give a bot enough of a human voice to be effective without crossing into creepy?
CK: Wow. That’s a topic of a lot of conversations and intentional decision-making. We’ve grappled with questions that might seem rudimentary or simple to solve, such as, “Do you give a bot a male or a female name, or a gender-neutral name? And what does that engender literally?” How you name a bot is a step toward anthropomorphizing or humanizing it. Furthermore, when creating a bot we often think of personality traits or pillars to have the bot adhere to in order to keep the experience positive.
FCW: Over the next five or 10 years, how do you see AI affecting businesses?
MH: For small organizations, it’ll be an opportunity to scale in a way that they wouldn’t be able to. And for large enterprises, it’ll be a way to get more nimble and to reduce the complexity that’s grown up over time within their organizations, systems and datasets.
CK: At Microsoft, we’re infusing AI into many of our products. There are so many projects, at so many stages of development and learning. We’re just at the beginning of understanding what the technology will be able to do for us.
MH: We’re at a precipice: Some will embrace AI and realize the positive impact for their employees, customers, and partners. Some will be reticent and continue to question moving forward. We believe this is only the beginning of what’s possible by building and inspiring teams around AI who are open not only to human-machine partnership but also new ways of forging human-to-human partnerships. The future is waiting to be built by leaders like Chris and Microsoft, who dare to be open, curious and unafraid. We can choose a better tomorrow and make it so.
This article was created with and commissioned by North Highland.
Learn more about North Highland’s AI and cognitive services here.