No one saw the global impact of COVID-19 coming. When was the last time the entire world closed up shop and we abandoned the streets to isolate? The fallout has been devastating in so many ways—at least for us humans.
But it’s a different story for machines.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has thrived in 2020 as people seek to connect, keep themselves entertained, get medical help and answers and buy what they need. Some might think it has come into its own, but the reality is that AI was already well established. It is, however, growing more than it has since its inception in the 1950s.
So, while we struggle physically and mentally in the “new normal” and our economies claw their way back to something resembling any kind of status quo, AI is emerging from this crisis stronger, with further-reaching applications than ever before.
Let’s take a look at a few specific ways AI is going to continue to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world.
A wide range of industries have adopted or expanded robotics because human errors are removed, the workforce never gets sick (or spreads a deadly virus) and can work 24/7. The Financial Times reports that the “International Federation of Robots (IFR) expects the number of professional services robots in operation around the world to increase by 38% this year and that growth to continue in the next two years.” Elisabeth Reynolds, the executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, said the spread of the virus “has accelerated the use of robotics and other technologies to take on tasks that are more fraught during the pandemic.” Safety is optimized, productivity increases, dependencies are eliminated, workflows are streamlined and revenue grows.
Apart from robotics, automation has seen an uptick from businesses and industries that have had to adapt to remote working. From managing our schedules in Slack, Google Calendar or Stackby to filtering emails to sorting out IT issues without physical support, automation is starting to be central in keeping our workforce productive and our companies running. It’s also working in the background to manage a lot of the support functions—such as back-end databases and information security features—that you don’t see, but are critical to the day-to-day running of a business. Automation Hero’s Content Lead Jess McCuan says, “Businesses that chose not to automate are likely now feeling some pain. Manual processes are simply harder to manage from a distance”.
They’re everywhere now, and companies are being upfront about the fact that we’re speaking to a bot. When we’re talking to the local music shop, we don’t mind speaking to Bot Marley. Smart brands are having fun with it and consumers are enjoying the results. Brand experience company Uberall found that eight out of 10 consumers who have engaged with a chatbot found it was a positive customer experience. Would consumers rate a human interaction that highly? BotStar, who creates chatbots, says they see a greater need for chatbots now than ever before because “online shopping is actually a long-term trend to continue into the post-pandemic future…even when the quarantine ends, people will still prefer shopping from the safety of their homes.”
But we’re not just talking about chatbots for shopping: According to the World Economic Forum, “the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also included chatbots in their websites to provide up-to-date information to billions on the spread of disease and its symptoms.”
Virtual assistants respond to commands, give us information, provide entertainment and assist us with everyday tasks. Currently, there are about 4.2 billion virtual assistants being used; in the next four years, that’s set to double to 8.4 billion, according to Statista. That’ll be more than the population of the world.
Driving the virtual assistant boom is voice recognition’s use of natural language processing (NLP). NLP is the ability for automated products to understand normal, everyday speech. So, with NLP you can talk to your smartphone, Alexa, Google Home, your car or any other device with speech-recognition ability and it will carry out your commands. The Drum marketing news site points out: “There is still much work to be done in this area; however, COVID-19 will continue to accelerate the pace of voice tech being implemented in the public domain.”
In another bid to make sure we all stay safe and have as little exposure to germs as possible, governments, hospitals and businesses have increased their use of AI-enabled technologies. Surveillance cameras, facial recognition systems and GPS locators for smart devices now actively fight the spread of COVID-19 by helping with track-and-trace protocols. Add to this thermal-imaging systems to detect people with high temperatures and you have a complete anti-pandemic, anti-virus and anti-disease defence system. Countries and corporations won’t want to get caught unprepared again, so you can bet that these security measures aren’t going anywhere, even after we’re all vaccinated.
Communication and education
Meeting in-person has been severely restricted since the pandemic outbreak. The new way of gathering—AI-enabled seminars, conferences and meetings—will continue long after COVID-19 is no longer a threat. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and all the other video-conferencing platforms that only require Wi-Fi are showing us that we can communicate easily from the comfort of home.
With businesses seeing huge cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint, a healthy balance of remote and on-site work looks to be the future. Educational institutions are also embracing this new approach, with universities automating administration and introducing online teaching that can cover entire degrees without stepping into a single classroom.
Is there any room left for us humans?
Isn’t this always the question? The answer is always going to be yes. AI needs humans. According to Gartner, a global research and advisory company, the increasing uses of AI do not automatically mean redundancies and layoffs—in fact, AI adoption will actually create 2.3 million job opportunities. The shift in how we work and what our roles are may change, but AI-enabled solutions need AI professionals to monitor their functions and guide them, so they can move businesses in the right direction.
As we hear about the different vaccines coming to the market and governments prepare strategies to vaccinate entire nations, a long-term result of the pandemic will be that it sped up the development of robotics, automation, chatbots, virtual assistants, surveillance systems and communication methods not only to help fight the virus, but also to move our economy into the future. Advancements in AI are helping industries survive and humans finally work together to overcome the biggest health crisis of the past 100 years.