The creators of a grand new world
It doesn't look like much – imagine a plain old server room with a lot of monitors, cables and a few desks with grimy paper cups. That's it. And if it wasn't for the razor-sharp minds who hang out in here, it would be just a plain old room. But here, pioneering ideas are turned into reality to lay the foundation of a new, fully digitalized and increasingly automated world. This is, in fact, where a grand new world is being created. Welcome to the technological revolution, as seen at Telia Company Integrated Business Solutions (IBS) in Uppsala, Sweden.
Telia's Mathias Johansson (pictured left), Head of Automated & Customized Solutions at IBS, believes that we are all in for a change equivalent to that of the industrial revolution beginning in the mid-18th century. Or bigger. He's leaning back on an undesignated desk chair in "the lab" – the above-mentioned, plain old room in which algorithms and code come to life as useful experiences for consumers everywhere. If you want to be grandiose, you can say that this is the birthplace of chat bots and artificial intelligence (AI).
And you can tell that in his head, Johansson has contemplated, again and again, the different scenarios and the potential pros and cons of "machines replacing humans". There is no sensationalism, hype or even much concern in or about anything he says.
"Yes, the short answer is that we are on the brink of a new world," Johansson says. "If you choose to believe a lot of the media out there, perhaps an even bigger change than the industrial revolution. But we've done pretty well historically, so I think it's safe to say that the change is a good thing for us humans. The progress, for example, that enabled us to design machines that made weaving by hand unnecessary, did not lead to any global catastrophes."
Still, there's quite a way to go yet, he calmly explains. The robots in use today to automate processes are good at their job when their job is to carry out specific, rule-based processes and as long as the robots are closely connected to the systems on which the processes rely. The jobs he is talking about are various administrative or repetitive processes.
"These robots will take over some jobs, or rather allow or free-up employees to carry out more value-creating tasks. I would say that robots will take over certain areas, but not most areas and they certainly can't replace all that we humans are or all of what we do."
There are clear examples of these certain areas. Customer interaction and Telia's new solution ACE, or A Conversational Engagement, is one such example. ACE will be launched during 2018, and Fredrik Lemming at IBS is one of the driving forces behind it.
"The interaction with consumers in our time has to be seamless and personal and needs to happen at the right time – all online of course," Lemming says. "And that interaction is one of the jobs that new technology such as robots, knowledge management and AI can do for us at Telia. It's cost-effective, and it gives our customers what they want: interaction and information when and where they want it."
ACE is basically about integrating functions like chat bots, smart Frequently Asked Questions "documents" and voice automation solutions such as Free Speech to give the consumer a good experience.
To illustrate, let's say you're interested in a certain Telia product and you're on Telia's website looking at it. To find out more, you can start a conversation with a chat bot, which either gives you all the information you need about the product, or passes you on to a human agent who can see the discussion you just had with the chat bot and take it from there.
Or, an individual might call his or her municipality with a question. The caller starts describing the issue and soon, a Free Speech solution interprets – understands – the caller's intentions and sends a link to the caller's phone. Via the link the caller can go on to find the necessary information on the website, while at the same time chatting with a robot or a human on the website.
"This is where we are at now," Lemming (picured below) says. "And it is not about how many channels we use or how many chat bots, it is about giving a customer a complete and perfect experience. These solutions will only get better as AI and Deep Learning advances."
Lemming is passionate about his area of expertise – anyone can tell from the way he talks and gestures about the right engagement with customers. Göran Olsson (pictured right), Head of IBS, is also passionate. And he's a visionary. At least that's how his team members describe him.
He gives a tour of the corridors, departments and meeting rooms at IBS, and somehow manages to make the surprisingly ordinary office environment sound thrilling.
"Here, we meet with our customers all the time. The contact with them is close and often personal, as we strive to understand eachother completely and work towards the exact same goal. That's what we're passionate about: enabling our customers to have effective and innovative customer meetings on their end."
Olsson (pictured below, right) says that today, IBS has got "fantastic" offers within digital customer meetings, and that recent procurements have shown that Telia has left the competition pretty far behind in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
But back to Johansson, and his liaisons with "the machines". He believes that, although there may be some way to go, the change we are all facing could happen faster than most previous technological revolutions.
"Some may not keep up, to be quite honest. This change will require us all to be adaptable, to consider and be prepared for the fact that we might need to put some of our other skills to use. Then still, some of what we've done at work so far will be done by robots."
But if you do let yourself speculate wildly about robotics alone, what do you predict about the world?
"Well, like I said a lot of administrative and repetitive jobs will be done by robots in this first stage. When robots get smarter through AI, they will be able to carry out more processes, processes that require thought, such as understanding language and abstractions and interpreting scenarios. By then, they will be making decisions and choices more regularly than today.
"Further down the line, we will have robots that possess more or less humanlike abilities to carry out truly complex tasks. But I believe that we are far from seeing robots that can't be distinguished from humans, for example when it comes to emotions, empathy and creativity. These abilities are too complicated to achieve by using data and machine learning alone. Having said that though, I do think that such robots are coming too."
Johansson isn't scared though. He wants us to look at automation from a societal perspective. If we do, we'll see that the current technological evolution will contribute to us using our common resources in a better way.
"Taking care of an increasingly older population is one example," he says. "A longer life-span and a growing population puts pressure on us as a society. If we don't have automation to handle some of the growing burden, we might not be able to do our jobs well or it is possible we would have to raise taxes to a level which would no longer be sustainable. With effective, automated support and integrated IT systems, we really can contribute to a better society."
So what about the "Terminator effect" – what do you believe people are worried about?
"I think people are worried that the robots will take our jobs and make us obsolete. That won't happen though. On the other hand, AI is potentially dangerous."
"AI is potentially dangerous – especially if we look at the ongoing experiments in which AI teaches AI. It's important that we humans stay in control of the technology and make the decisions about its limits. We need to decide what a machine should learn and do. There are some initiatives, one created by Barack Obama, which aim to democratize and regulate the advancements. That is also happening in the area of human cloning, in which similar moral and ethical aspects need to be considered.
"We're pretty good at all this, however. We don't allow humans to do whatever they want, so why should we allow AI to? We should regulate it, and be aware and careful about the issues at hand. Robots should be our helpers, or sidekicks, while we remain in charge."
Johansson says that to work in this field, you need to be curious and passionate about learning.
"We work in a realm where some things are unknown. We might work on something where it is not entirely clear what it is we want to achieve, or what the result will look like."
Then he adds:
"If we do the best we can with these opportunities, then in the long run my colleagues and I may be able to contribute to a better world. Healhtcare is one example: perhaps we will see healthcare improve through automation. That is what is important to me, the things we can achieve when we stay positive, careful and innovative."
Fact Box: The misconceptions
Mathias Johansson's list of the most common misconceptions about robotics and AI:
That robotics, AI and Deep Learning are the same thing. AI is not a technology, but a collection of areas and technologies.
That we have come further than we have done in solving the mystery of the human brain.
That "everything will be AI". For the foreseeable future, we will have a combination of data-driven and rule-based automations. And also, the definition of AI, or rather an AI technology, changes over time. The advancement of deep learning has opened up many new doors but is not the answer to every problem.
That our challenges will be magically solved if we just focus on AI, and that AI can do more than it actually can today. What matters is how we as humans and organizations use the technology.
That because we can train a machine to beat the world champion of Go, or make a quick medical diagnoses or a legal assessment, we're close to the Singularity (see below). That is not the case. Today, a machine can be extremely good at solving a specific task with unprecedented accuracy and speed. A human is extremely good at solving several different tasks that require a variety of skills and knowledge. These are two quite different things.
The technological singularity (or simply the Singularity)is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI) will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. (Source: Wikipedia)