Tackling the productivity puzzle with artificial intelligence

There is a challenge, both within and out of the workplace, which we have all faced at some point when tackling a task.   

We have the skills. We have the ability. We know what we need to do, and yet – an activity becomes a chore, and a time-consuming burden.    

The productivity puzzle is a broad, complex one, but this is undoubtedly one facet of it. Mundane activities without question are often crucial to our day to day, and need to be done. But as humans we need mental stimulation, and the creative applications of our skills to keep us engaged. When these creative opportunities are limited, when occupations risk becoming a cycle of repetitive or dull activity and productivity suffers.   

Productivity in the UK

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement revealed some striking facts about the British productivity gap. The UK lags the US and Germany by “some 30 percentage points” in productivity – in a real world application, a task that takes a German worker four days would take a British worker five. To make matters worse, this is a problem that has literally been discussed for over a decade – that we still have not overcome this is worrying.   

The productivity challenge that we face at work, is not about asking workers to work more. This is not even about asking workers to work better. This is about asking how do we best apply and capitalise on the human mind in the modern workplace.  Many efforts have been undertaken over time by successive governments to tackle the productivity puzzle – evidently these have been insufficient. Yet we need not lose hope at this yet. What if low productivity is not just a policy problem, but a technological one – dependent on technology that now making real, meaningful impacts on workplaces?   

This is where I believe Artificial Intelligence can and should come in – not to replace us as workers, but to complement us and shoulder the burden of mundane responsibilities when our skills could be better placed and utilised.    

The division of labour – digital and human colleagues  

The solution we see in AI is not to remove work from humans. It is to assign the right types of tasks to digital and human employees, and ensure that each does what is best suited to their skills. AI is most effective when it takes over routine and mundane tasks, being able to complete these with far greater efficiency and accuracy than humans can manage.    

On the flip side, creativity is among the most difficult of human capabilities to automate and by taking care of the ordinary tasks at hand, we free up capacity for the human to explore creative and more complex tasks – thereby better utilising the human mind and skill set.

Insights from IT and banking

Amelia, IPsoft’s cognitive agent, is an example of technology that can and has changed the way we approach work by taking on everyday tasks and doing them not only faster, but better.  Consider the recent implementation of AI at SEB as an internal IT Service Desk, which within the first three weeks of launch held over 4000 conversations with 700 human employees, resolving the majority of these queries independently.    

This enabled human IT staff to focus on the more pressing complex and intricate problems that demanded the application of the human mind. The numbers are similar elsewhere in IT functions – the virtual workforce has a clear role to play in supporting the human one.   

This is central to the introduction of AI. AI should not, and quite frankly cannot, replace the human being. AI replaces many high-volume and repetitive tasks, currently carried out by humans, and in doing so liberates investment for human labour focused on more satisfying, higher impact activities.   

Cognitive assistants do not suffer from boredom. They do not become tired, demotivated or uninspired by the job at hand. Critically, she does not have any impulse to deviate from the policies and regulations that are a key requirement for the role she is fulfilling.    

Humans have needs that reach far beyond our ability to master and repeat the same actions over and over again. Our strengths as individuals lie in our capacity for problem solving and applying judgment to a huge range of scenarios. These are critical human traits that AI’s can’t match and that we can capitalise on more when we team with digital colleagues.    

IPsoft’s vision is of a hybrid workforce – one where it’s man with machine, not man vs machine. Where the machine takes on activity that would be wasted with a human, it can truly unleash our greatest strength in our work, and help us take a significant step in overcoming the productivity challenges that face our economy.

The key to productivity

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has placed productivity on the radar, and the commitment to the creation of the National Productivity Investment Fund is particularly welcome.    

Solutions will need to come from different aspects of our economy. Combined with the Prime Minister’s commitment to a £2bn annual fund for scientific research and development, I believe that the UK is in a strong place to reduce this gap with other countries.   

AI is but one piece of the whole puzzle. Here’s an interesting thing about puzzles, however – placing down one piece often illuminates the path forward. You learn that if this piece shows a tree trunk, the one above it will likely be branches, and from that the next few around it may be leaves, then open sky.    

AI is a key for our productivity and our economy, and a critical piece of this puzzle. It unlocks human workers from the menial and the mundane. From banking to IT and elsewhere, the applications are as varied as the industries themselves, and in turn enable advancements in productivity across the economy.    

It is up to us now to make full use of this technology to develop not just a few added percentage points, but a better application of skills for human and digital employees alike.  

Image Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek / Shutterstock
Frank Lansink,
European CEO of IPsoft