South African businesses are already seeing AI-based automation being deployed in digital and communication spaces, with this trend set to continue over the coming year, says Michael Daniels, head of Group Automation and Shared Capabilities at Standard Bank.
Daniels said that two of the most common ways that businesses are engaging with automation are through chatbot, and automated email, and web-based services.
“Designed to carry out basic functions, such as addressing customer queries and data-related requests, companies can ‘train’ chatbots to respond to specific statements and questions based on interactions determined by the specific product and service offerings of a business.”
He said that Gartner predicted that by 2020, 25% of customer service and support operations would integrate the technology across their engagement channels.
Automated web services take this function a step further, said Daniels, noting that AI can be trained using innovative processes, such as natural language processing and optical character recognition in which machines learn to identify and respond to input text and visual data, and even analyse the sentiment of the written word.
Customers can receive emailed responses based on their initial emails depending on what the bot has been trained to look for, he said.
Jobs may be replaced – but new ones will be gained
With the proliferation of machine-based automation comes questions regarding its impact on South Africa’s job market. The country’s youth already face an uphill battle in the labour market, with nearly half (46.3%) of those aged 15 to 34 unemployed.
However, Daniels said that only specific kinds of work are at risk of automation – and it is likely the new technology will create new jobs as well.
“Today’s automation targets a specific kind of work – that which involves strict routine, structured data, or rule-based tasks. From filing in application forms to the verification of information, these are the kinds of jobs that are ideal for AI-automated processes,” said Daniels.
“Although these jobs may be replaced, with automation comes growth in employment opportunities surrounding the application of this technology. There will always be a need for humans to interact with other humans, to create new things and solve problems, and have empathy for customers.”
Daniels said there will also be the need for jobs that are required to keep the automation processes running smoothly.
“Coding, programming, and IT-related skills will become even more valuable, and an expansion of the field will result in different employment opportunities,” he said.
This aligns with a 2018 report released by global consultancy Accenture which found repetitive jobs such as clerks, cashiers, tellers, construction-, mining- and maintenance workers are most at risk in South Africa.
By comparison, hard-to-automate jobs include tasks like influencing people, teaching people, programming, real-time discussions, advising people, negotiating and cooperating with co-workers.
Education and upskilling
Increased work opportunities in fields related to IT and machine learning mean that South Africa’s education focus must evolve in response to these demands, Daniels said.
Whereas in the past a company may have had one or two people involved in IT, now they may benefit from three to four people in that function. Education, particularly in STEM learning and expanded IT-related subjects, is key to that, he said.
“What we are seeing in South Africa is proactivity from corporates when it comes to training and upskilling their staff. This provides the opportunity for leaders to get involved and fully understand the shift to an automated workspace and equip employees for future work processes.”
“Not every business can adapt like this, though. Many simply do not have the infrastructure or knowledge to introduce AI processes or training into their operations.”
This is where South Africa’s startup scene, particularly companies in the fintech and data science space, can make a difference, Daniels said.
“SMEs could partner with large corporates to build their capabilities, while they, in turn, receive support to grow.”
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