LONDON – Artificial intelligence (AI) will be widely adopted in office environments in a variety of ways over the next few years as businesses invest in digital workplace initiatives, Gartner analysts said today.
The trend is expected to gather steam as voice-activated personal assistants that have proved a hit at home begin to make inroads in the office.
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By 2025, the technology will “certainly be mainstream,” said Matthew Cain, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner – even though privacy and security concerns have limited deployments so far. Cain was among the analysts who spoke at Gartner’s Digital Workplace Summit here.
Gartner has separately predicted that consumer and business spending on smart speakers will pass $3.5 billion in 2021, with 25% of digital workers using an AI assistant on a daily basis within the next two years. A number of companies have already deployed the technology, though WeWork reportedly put its Alexa for Business deployment on hold last year.
“I think the only mystery here is: What has taken so long?” said Cain. "I think we all see the value of these in our personal lives - I'm talking about Alexa and Siri, Google and sooner or later Microsoft will gets its act together around Cortana. But we are just waiting for [voice assistants in the workplace]: there is huge pent-up demand.”
He urged companies considering the technology to begin building up IT skills in the deployment, management and security of voice assistants now.
Meet the new (robo) boss, same as the old boss
Gartner also expects AI tools to help support managers in making better decisions. “Robo-bosses [will] become common in 2025. We are not necessarily saying that everyone is going to be reporting to an algorithm, so you can breathe a little bit easier,” said Cain.
Instead, AI will help out with the more mundane tasks managers already do.
“Let's think about what managers do every day: they set schedules, assign work, do performance reviews, offer career guidance, help you access training, they do approvals, they cascade information and they enforce directives,” Cain said. “We can have AI doing a lot of that.
“Your manager won't be replaced by an algorithm, but your manager will be using a lot of AI constructs to help improve and to make more efficient a lot of the routine work that they do. We think that that is going to be the combination.”
There will also be more intelligence embedded in the workplace, as smart office technologies become more common, said Cain.
“First of all, we are going to see workplaces have huge amounts of beacon and sensor networks woven throughout the physical workspace,” he said. “This can be used for space optimization, heating and cooling, energy use, supply replenishment [and] contextual data displays as you navigate the workplace.
“We are going to see that paired up with things like your own app for office hoteling, way-finding and for parking. So the physical workspace will get a lot of instrumentation and intelligence.”
AI will mostly augment, not replace, workers
Despite on-going fears from workers that AI and robots are coming for their jobs, for the most part, the uses of AI will be more prosaic.
By 2024, AI will be an “essential, but largely invisible, element of daily work activities,” said Leigh McMullen, a Gartner distinguished vice president and analyst. “Emerging ways of working will get a subtle AI assist.”
In many cases, workers are already interacting with AI, with software vendors integrating machine learning into various office productivity apps.
Gartner survey data shows that employees expect AI will handle simple and routine tasks on their behalf, such as helping to reduce mistakes, locate information and sift through large volumes of data.
“Very few employees expect AI to help with complicated problems,” said Helen Poitevin, another Gartner vice president and analyst. “And employees don’t expect miracles from AI, they just want help with everyday activities.”
“Many employees are being exposed to AI on a daily basis, but they may not recognize it,” said Poitevin. “We have spreadsheets that ask us if we want data patterns identified and visualized, word processors that have copy editors, calendars that remind us when to leave for the airport, and email applications that answer for you.
“It is the everyday AI services that will have a much bigger impact on employees than the very specific and targeted AI applications for medical diagnostics or loan approvals or threat detection,” she said.
The growing familiarity with AI should head off employee fears about job losses.
Employees already familiar with AI are more sanguine about its impact on the workforce, said Poitevin. “If you have worked with AI services, you are far less likely to fear the impact of AI on your job,” she said.
In general, Gartner expects AI to have a largely beneficial impact on the workplace.
“There is quite a bit of industry debate about whether or not AI destroys jobs or creates,” said Cain. “The Gartner opinion is that it creates more jobs than it eliminates, simply because we believe that AI creates vast efficiencies within the enterprise, which creates the space for business expansion, and business expansion allows more hires.
“Certainly there is a lot of fear out there about being replaced, and yes there are jobs out there that .... are going over to AI. But for most of us it is going to be more about augmentation.
“AI will come in and start to do a lot of our routine work,” Cain said. “It allows us to focus on more of the people-oriented, the most creative aspects of that elements. So it is more [about] your job continuously changing than being eliminated.”