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Welcome to your digital sidekick - AI-powered automation in the office

Peter Griffin, Editor. 09 June 2022, 2:03 pm
Welcome to your digital sidekick - AI-powered automation in the office

We've heard a lot in recent years about using software to automate mundane and repetitive tasks - the wave of automation that is supposed to free up humans to do more fulfilling work.

A whole field called Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has emerged to automatically process invoices, read documents using optical character recognition and extract the desired information, or create decision engines to suggest actions based on the workflows they observe.

Those apps and bots have led to a quiet revolution in admin tasks in industries ranging from insurance to healthcare. But the next step is combining process automation with artificial intelligence to offer digital assistants that can think for themselves to some extent, to take away some of the admin involved with being a knowledge worker.

IBM's Watson Orchestrate is setting out to do just that. It automates emails, procuring approvals, the scheduling of meetings and a range of other standard business processes that tend to clog up an office worker's day.

"From the time the wheel was invented, somebody's job was being automated," says Dr. Ruchir Puri, Chief Scientist of IBM Research and the former Chief Technology Officer of Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence-powered question answering platform.

"The key is now how do we take the power of automation and deliver it to the knowledge worker?"

The answer, argues Puri, is to use AI to move beyond the rules-based RPA systems that are now common in workplaces, to offer more flexible and useful admin support for employees. Doing that effectively requires Watson Orchestrate to be able to interact with a wide range of systems that hold the information businesses run on.

"80% of organisations estimate that they have upwards of 1000 applications," Puri points out. 

"And interestingly, several of the banks that we worked with, have upwards of 5000 applications."


Watson Orchestrate grew out of IBM's powerful Watson AI natural language processing platform

Skills in the office

Watson Orchestrate, which won the Product Innovation Award at this year's CES show in Las Vegas, has a "no-code builder" to allow office workers to easily set up integration with legacy systems to extract data. It also runs on the concept of "skills", similar to the skills users of Amazon's Alexa digital assistant can set up to automate daily processes, such as setting lights and thermostats and selecting content to stream.

Skills have been developed to allow IBM Orchestrate to interact with major software platforms such as Salesforce, SAP, Workday, Slack and Asana.

A demo of Watson Orchestrate for Tech Blog saw an "HR Sidekick" bot take the admin out of processing and approving job applications. HR Sidekick can select the right forms to send to an applicant, schedule interviews and set tasks for managers to perform, such as approving a candidate for selection for an interview.

The workflows are set up via a simple online dashboard, but Watson Orchestrate then uses your applications of choice, such as your email client and the Slack or Teams messaging apps to send messages to users updating them on the process and reminding them to complete tasks.

"We're trying to fit within the current means of working that exist within organisations today rather than trying to reinvent new ways of collaborating," says Danielle MacLean, the Program Director for IBM Watson Orchestrate.

At the moment, that involves using natural language processing technology to power chat conversions and allow Watson Orchestrate to decipher emails and documents, but IBM wants to extend it to allow for voice interactions too.

An answer to office staff shortages

The AI comes into its own when Watson Orchestrate assesses the task that needs doing and combines the required skills to get it done - looking up information, communicating with the right people, and putting completed documents in the right place.

"When a user asks a digital employee to perform a task through natural language, Watson Orchestrate's planning algorithm evaluates all the skills the digital employee has been trained with and selects the best matching skills," says MacLean.

"Ultimately, the way it manifests in the user experience, we want it to be incredibly intuitive and something that's accessible without needing to put it into a queue for IT," she adds.

Watson Orchestrate also learns while it works and has a memory. So if it has processed a collection of documents, it understands the context in which they are being used and will automatically look for them.

Puri says Watson Orchestrate isn't about replacing office workers but making them"ninja users" so they can cut through their admin load. 

"It's about automating knowledge work and augmenting the work of human knowledge workers."

With low unemployment in the US and other countries currently, but an uncertain economic outlook, intelligent automation may be a way to overcome staff shortages. Watson Orchestrate will be available as a SaaS (software as a service) offering in the coming months and doesn't require an organisation to be based on IBM's technology stack.

Multiple digital employees could be deployed by Watson Orchestrate across a business, spread across different departments and locations, each with its own digital identity to manage its access to information.

The average office could soon be crowded with digital workers, shouldering the admin load. Roll on the four day work week!


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