First IBM’s Watson supercomputer took on Jeopardy and now it’s ready to do your taxes. Or, so the TV ads running in heavy rotation these days would have you believe. Fact is, folks walking into their local tax preparer’s office will not be handing over their W-2s to R2-D2 anytime soon. However, H&R Block’s much-hyped partnership with IBM has shed some light on what the real role of artificial intelligence will be in the business world.
In a nutshell, H&R Block has installed computer screens on its preparers’ desks that are powered by IBM Watson. The tax preparer asks a series of questions, such as, “Did you make any tuition payments?” and “Do you have any investments?” As the customer answers, thematic icons light up on the screen, helping to walk the customer through the conversation.
Ed Harbour, IBM vice president of Watson implementations, was recently quoted describing Watson’s role as a sort of helping-hand to standardize the process for the preparer: “Watson will ask questions that we might not think about on our own.”
The initiative is similar to the trend I described unfolding in the corporate and professional tax space in which powerful technology is being married with the human element to create a hybrid — cyborg if you will — new breed of professional powered by big data and enhanced productivity tools.
That is the real future of artificial intelligence. Amidst all of the alarmist predictions about robots stealing jobs and even new speculation that robots might even have to pay taxes after they steal your job, artificial intelligence is increasingly revealing itself as more of an enabler than a disruptor.
Take the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and any of the dozens of artificial intelligence-enabled home automation technologies that stole the spotlight at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. The mainstream accessibility of these technologies, along with advances in visual and voice recognition, have rapidly accelerated the development of the technology. But now that the true potential of artificial intelligence is being realized, we can also start to see its limitations.
According to a recent study of Amazon Echo users, the most common use of the device is to set a timer. While the Echo is certainly an improvement on the sand-filled egg timer while it’s sitting in the kitchen streaming songs, handing out weather reports, and counting down the minutes until breakfast is ready, it’s not going to cook you an omelet.
The same is true in business. While the potential for artificial intelligence-powered technology is becoming much more prominent, the underlying premise has been driving business innovation for quite some time. In fact, the term “artificial intelligence,” was coined more than 60 years ago in a conference proposal written by the seminal computer scientist John McCarthy, who wrote: “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”
He was right. Computers have become exceptionally adept at mastering process-driven skills and they are able to get “smarter” as they receive ever-larger numbers of data inputs. In the real world, that translates to irrigation systems that can detect when a single vine in a vineyard needs more water than the one next to it and fine-tune watering patterns accordingly. Financial firms can more quickly discover behavioral anomalies that are consistent with fraudulent transactions. Hospitals are able to map the relationship between genetic markers and disease to target their treatments at the individual patient level.
These advances are not about breaking apart conventional workforces; they are about connecting things that were once too complex to connect. Connecting them draws out new insights and makes us better at producing consistently higher quality products and outcomes.
That’s an important realization for today’s business leaders who are contemplating the role that artificial intelligence will play in their organizations over the next several years. Artificial intelligence is not a replacement for humans; it’s an enhancement. As such, the most successful deployments of the technology will be those that are focused on getting us past computational and systematic hurdles that were previously holding us back.
In that light, the future of the artificial intelligence-enabled workforce may be somewhat less sexy than it has been portrayed in TV ads and by doomsday prophets. But the prospects for what we can actually achieve using this technology — things like conserving resources in agriculture, rooting out errors and fraud in our financial system, and finding cures for disease — become all the more exciting. The key to success for business leaders implementing artificial intelligence initiatives is to keep focusing on the practical while continually reaching past the impossible.
Brian Peccarelli is president of the tax & accounting business of Thomson Reuters.