Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly making its presence known in the service industry. According to Gartner, half of all medium to large enterprises will utilize AI-powered chatbots in the workplace by 2020. But where do things currently stand with respect to AI? How will things have progressed by 2025? And is AI going to influence the role of the traditional service desk employee? I asked Jeroen de Haas and Paul Verkaik from IPsoftmakers of the world-famous ‘digital colleague’ Amelia, who’s deployed all over the world as a digital service desk employee.

How would you define Artificial Intelligence?

Jeroen: ‘In 1955, John McCarthy said that AI was about making machines behave in a way that we would refer to as intelligent behaviour. The same way that people behave. That’s what it’s all about for us too: getting as close to the natural intelligence of human beings in a machine as possible. Reasoning, thinking, interpreting, recognizing emotions and being able to act accordingly.’

Paul: ‘At IPsoft, we believe that the human mind is the most beautiful creation there is. And that performing the same, repetitive tasks day in, day out is a waste of our talents. The human brain should focus on things that require more creativity, are more rewarding, and improve our world. AI can help us realize this vision.’

Where are we right now with respect to AI?

Jeroen: ‘We’re starting to embrace the technology on a massive scale and at a frenetic pace. According to a report from KPMG and HFS Research, around 75% of boardrooms worldwide are specifically focusing on AI. From Machine Learning to Natural Language Processing. And 17% of this group say they’re scaling up.’

What role is AI likely to play in 2025?

Jeroen: ‘AI is on the rise, but it’s still not commonplace. We can see that from callers’ surprised reactions when they talk to Amelia. In 2025, this will no longer be considered unusual. People will no longer care whether they’re working with AI. And AI will be inextricably linked to the business operations of almost every enterprise.’

Paul: ‘There are two key drivers for this. Firstly, you can harness AI to accomplish things that you cannot achieve with people, at least not without huge investments. AI also provides increased insight. Take data processing for example: AI enables you to process more data more expeditiously and it provides greater insight. In practical terms, of course, it also helps that computing power is becoming less expensive.’

‘The more we become accustomed to AI, the more our view on how we work is changing. Our plans are currently still based on staff numbers and what we can accomplish with our people in a certain amount of time. ITSM, for example, still requires considerable human interaction between the end user and the service desk. That’s going to change. There’ll soon be no such thing as an IT service desk queue. AI will enable you to assist anyone who logs in, instantly and simultaneously.’

What does this change mean for (service desk) employees?

Paul: ‘The introduction of new technology typically results in the loss of certain roles. The loom had a massive impact on the work of traditional weavers for instance. But new opportunities also emerged, compensating for job losses and, in some cases, even generating more jobs. You’ll see the same thing happen with AI. Machines will take over a portion of the work. But this will be accompanied by new jobs and opportunities.’

Should service desk employees fear for their jobs?

Jeroen: ‘No. People tend to associate AI with the up and downscaling of human capital. But so far, most companies have neither increased nor decreased employee numbers and, instead, deliver more services with the same number of people.’

‘AI frees service desk employees from repetitive work and administrative red tape. They also benefit from the insight that AI provides. This affords employees the time and expertise to offer their customers a much more personalized service.’

Paul: ‘The role of the service desk employee will inevitably change. Dedicated IT, HR or FM service desk employees will become a thing of the past. They’ll be replaced by customer-oriented ‘full service desk employees’ who are the contact point for all services within an enterprise. This is essential in fulfilling the customer’s wish for a single, comprehensive service desk that can instantly assist with all enquiries.’

The human brain should focus on things that require more creativity, are more rewarding, and improve our world. AI can help us realize this vision.

Are we heading towards AI-only service desks?

Jeroen: ‘No, the best results are achieved by a continued collaboration between man and machine. One of our clients is an excellent working example. This major international insurer utilized Amelia as a whisper agent, a digital assistant who helps service desk employees in the background. The company saw the average resolution time decrease by 10% and the resolution rate increase by 12%. Man and machine complemented each other perfectly.

Paul: ‘We purposely refer to Amelia as a digital employee, not a chatbot. She follows the same processes as a service desk employee, is trained in the same way and works in the same team. And she definitely needs her colleagues. If she can’t resolve a particular enquiry for instance, then she’ll first ask a colleague or supervisor for help. That collaboration is essential for good results.’

Jeroen: ‘We’ll soon enter into a partnership with TOPdesk and, enabling TOPdesk users to augment their existing service delivery with the power of Amelia. During the preparation stage, we asked numerous TOPdesk clients about their key requirements. The need for cost savings and efficiency gains came in fifth place, trailing other considerations such as a 24/7 service window, improved service quality and a more valuable use of human capital.’

Which situations are suited to AI deployment?

Jeroen: ‘I believe that artificial intelligence makes fewer mistakes than humans in data-driven scenarios. If you need to oversee a relatively large, complex operation in a short time and make a decision based on gigabytes of data for instance, then leave it to a machine. If it involves complexity of a creative nature, then spend your money on a human colleague.’

Paul: ‘AI is extremely effective in dealing with changing situations. Are previous statements revised every time an error message (or the time that it occurred) is changed? AI immediately determines the impact of new information on everything that has preceded it. Going back a step to verify or add something is much more difficult for people.’

Can AI communicate empathically with people?

Jeroen: ‘Yes, definitely. The majority of chatbots are really nothing more than glorified Interactive Voice Response systems, which guide customers through a pre-programmed path. Solutions such as Amelia are much more advanced. Thanks to Natural Language Processing and Natural Language Understanding, they not only understand customer intent, but also the emotions behind it. Empathy is actually one of their strengths.’

Paul: ‘Suppose you were to say the following to Amelia: I’ve just arrived in the conference room where I’m supposed to give an important presentation to my director in 5 minutes. The projector isn’t working and I can’t access my presentation on the network because there’s also no Wi-Fi. I’m concerned that I won’t be ready in time.’

‘In the past, a chatbot would probably have asked you to confirm that you wanted to book a meeting room. However, just like a person, Amelia understands that she must first de-escalate the situation. She addresses the emotional aspect first, replying that you needn’t worry and that she’ll resolve the problem on time.’

How important is it for organizations in the service industry to embrace AI?

Jeroen: ‘At the end of the day, it’s not a question of wanting to embrace AI; it’s a question of having to. And for one simple reason: the western world has an aging population. The corresponding loss of employees and productivity must be compensated for if we wish to maintain our current prosperity levels. AI is an absolute must in achieving this.’

Paul: ‘I’m convinced that we’ll eventually rank AI alongside the discovery of fire. Artificial intelligence frees us from repetitive tasks, both in our work and our personal lives. This creates room for innovation and creativity, which in turn leads to extraordinary inventions that enrich our lives enormously. Because innovation and creativity are what people excel at. So, start embracing AI. And give yourself, your customers and your employees the freedom, time and space not only to dream, but also to make those dreams come true.’

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