Feature Story

Machines, Talking Their Way into the Workplace

Speech recognition is getting smarter. Are business leaders ready?

Until recently, a conversation with your computer would have been nonsensical at best, one-sided at worst.

“It’s always been promised as, ‘It’s going to work really well, really soon,’ ” said James Landay, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, “but over the years it was never really ready.”

Until now, that is.

Landay, an expert in human-computer interaction, credits a convergence of breakthroughs — everything from cloud and AI to advanced algorithms and cheap noise-cancelling mics — for making speech recognition a soon-to-be game changer.

“A big thing happened three or four years ago,” said Landay, “which is the switch to using deep learning in the speech recognition algorithms. Right now, most of the processing — AI and machine learning — is running in the cloud. That has really pushed the technology beyond a certain level.”

The chattier our computers get, the bigger the implications.

Not only in the home, where products like Siri and Alexa are already offering day-to-day assistance. But in the enterprise, where business leaders and workers should prepare for a new dimension in human-machine interactions.

Already, speech recognition is outpacing humans at typing and texting, as a 2016 Stanford study showed. “We did this study in both English and Mandarin Chinese,” Landay said, “and found pretty much the same results — 2.8 times faster to be accurate.”

Next up? Computers that go beyond fast typing and simple responses to comprehending, learning, and holding up their end in a true dialogue.

“I think the part of just getting speech recognition right, that part is working really well now,” Landy said. “The language understanding is really the next part, that is the hard problem.”

After all, as impressive as Alexa and Siri are, we’ve all experienced those comic moments when they don’t have a clue what we were asking.

“I do think people run into a wall very quickly,” Landay said, “and find what these devices cannot do. The speech recognition works, but now it’s the language understanding issue.”

Landay expects cloud-based AI to eventually comprehend nuances of communication like double-meanings, context, and non-verbal gestures.

“The next step is to do more complex things,” he said. “Can you have interfaces that understand what you’re speaking about and what you’re gesturing with your body, what we call multi-modal?”

Landay predicts such complex interactions within five to ten years, with “intelligent assistants” that master the subtleties of your voice and changing needs. “Emotion even,” he added, “understanding your tone.”

But speech recognition is already a player in business today. And bots may be “manning” a helpdesk near you.

“We already see it in customer support,” said Landay. “Maybe you have a bot at the front-end that tries to figure out what the customer’s problem is. And if that’s just a standard thing we hear over and over, here’s the solution.”

For more complicated interactions, the bot can hand the question off to a human. “We see it as a triage kind of thing,” Landay added. “In the end, a person still has to figure out what to do.”

Speech recognition can also play a role wherever hands-free interactions are needed.

“It’s a really good interface when you’re busy doing something else,” Landay said. “We could imagine speech working in certain factory situations or driving situations.

Obviously noise has been an issue in a factory environment. But that’s being taken care of by noise-canceling microphones.”

The Future of Work: Less Boring, More Creative

But what of the future? Will talking, thinking machines outpace us in more and more ways?

Landay is a firm believer that AI and speech recognition won’t replace humans but rather free us from rote tasks.

“That to me would be the big change in the workday of the future,” he said, “simply offloading some things to an agent that could help you.”

Talking, intelligent agents could, in effect, act as personal secretaries, administrative assistants, and researchers, freeing us from many time-consuming tasks.

“We can just imagine, what if we all had a smart secretary to help us with our tasks?” Landay added. “Most of us aren’t in positions where we can afford to have that type of person. I think as these agents get better, your focus could be on the hard, creative, what many of us think of as fun problems.”

While such technologies will make our lives easier, they still promise upheavals.

“There’s a lot of threatening feelings among workers,” Landay said, “of feeling, ‘Am I going to lose my job?’ Yes, some people will, but people who keep on top of the technology and how to use it are going to find better jobs in some ways, and new jobs that didn’t exist before will be created. We don't even know what they’re called yet.”

He insists, however, that business leaders and society as a whole must be prepared for these changes.

“We need to get ahead of this,” he warned, “a lot better than we did with, let’s say, globalization, where there was a lot of displacement. The key is studying it now to understand what to do to help people as they retrain and move to new jobs.”

Education, already changing, will have to evolve further.

“Rote learning doesn’t work,” Landay said. “It doesn’t really make sense when you can just look it up on Wikipedia. I think it’s going to be even more of a customized experience so that those students are prepared to go out there and work on problems that are unique to the situation that they’re in.”

Wanted: IT Skills for a New Era

IT is one area where leaders should anticipate big changes. New technologies will redefine both how IT itself works and the kinds of skills needed to provide innovative solutions for their organizations.

“These tools are going to really change their life,” Landay said. “Again, getting rid of some of the drudgery of looking at voluminous log files, looking for anomalous data, etc.”

But as IT takes on a more hands-on role creating new solutions for the business, talent gaps could become glaring.

“How do you have the workforce that has the skills to do this?” Landay asked. “This is not straightforward computer science as it’s always been taught. There is now this whole new piece of computing, machine learning that you have to have.”

“It’s going to be essential for the CIOs,” Landay continued. “Making sure that they’re hiring people with that training or sending them back to get that kind of training.”

Whether a business leader or a worker, it’s critical to stay on top of the changes and remain flexible and curious. Conversant computers will be just one element of a much-altered work experience designed to help us cope with a deluge of information.

“What’s going to change,” Landy predicted, “is that our work is going to be using some new device, some new intelligence in addition to what we already use. Just fitting it into our workflow is going to be the key. It’s just not obvious what the winner is at the moment. AR, VR, smart machines, brain computer interfaces, who knows?”

Regardless of how things pan out, life won’t be boring.

“It’s an exciting time to live,” Landay said, “and you’ve just got to be out there learning new things to stay abreast.”

But, he added, disruptive technologies come with big responsibilities.

“There’s many possible futures,” he concluded. “I think it’s actually a requirement for us who create these technologies to think about those possibilities and focus on a future that we think would be better.”