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BT’s futurologist on AI and the workplace

Dr Nicola J. Millard is head of customer insight and futures in BT’s global innovation team. She combines psychology with futurology to try and anticipate what might be lying around the corner for both customers and organisations.

BT’s futurologist on AI and the workplace


In this interview, we ask for her predictions on the disruptive tech and customer experience trends shaping the near future and how to prepare for their impact.


1. As a futurologist, can you provide a glimpse of what life in 10 years’ time might look like – how will technology have transformed the way we live and work?


My crystal ball is broken – so, no, I don’t know what work will look like in 10 years’ time. I’m more of a “soon-ologist” than futurologist – so I have to extrapolate trends that we are seeing now and figure out how they may play in the next few years. As a result, we’ve been looking at 7 trends which all begin with the letter ‘D’. Two trends are on the rise – diversity and the droid. The rest are dying – Dolly, Dilbert, Distance and Dr No.


We are getting more diverse workforces – and I’m not just talking about “millennials” here. In terms of age, culture, gender, personality types, caring responsibilities and many other dimensions, we are all different. Imposing a one-size fits all template on work will not work. That’s why Dr No is dangerous – because people often find workarounds to things that don’t fit the ways that they think, or work.


The 9 to 5 is dead (hence Dolly), but the blurring of those boundaries may not be making us more productive. Dilbert may be using his office space in different ways because he has been untethered from his desk. Distance matters though – trust is easily developed face-to-face, but getting people into the same room is often like herding cats, so how do we develop trust virtually?


Finally, the myth that droids (artificial intelligence and robots) are going to take all the jobs is the stuff of science fiction. It is, however, highly likely that AI will transform all of our work, and change the skillsets that we need in our human workforce.


2. The first AI board member was in place as early as 2014 so the future is closer than we think! How do you think artificial intelligence and related technologies will affect the future of work and its power structures?


My first project in BT was AI – building neural networks to do complex fault diagnostics – and that was in 1990! AI has been around since the 1930s, so it’s not new – it’s just that the data available and compute power has increased significantly in the past few years. It’s brilliant at pattern matching in large data sets, but a 3-year-old child is better at things like empathy, emotion recognition and even conversation. I think AI – augmented intelligence – could give us super powers, because combining the strengths of the human with the technology can create better customer experiences. It will also force us to value what it really means to be human – as the last thing we want our human workforce to be is robotic. We get to pick up all of the messy, complex, emotive and unpredictable stuff that the machines struggle with.


3. Looking more short term, what customer experience trends and technologies do you see having a significant impact in 2019?


The overarching trend is about making things easy – for both customers and employees. Whenever we look at any innovation, we need to think whether this will make things easier for customers, as well as more productive for employees. Innovation which makes things harder, or makes people less productive are unlikely to enjoy mass adoption.


Obviously, smartphones are fairly critical to customer experience as they are now our window on the world. We may well be entering a “post-PC” world where we abandon the keyboard, the browser and the mouse and move into the land of swipes, apps and voice assistants. How do we harness the power of the smartphone – including the camera – to enhance the customer experience?


Of course, AI is inevitably high on the customer experience agenda this year – from chatbots, to analytics. These don’t work by magic, though. They work by data. Enterprise data is often extremely messy, so much of the effort here is getting better, more stable datasets. There are high expectations from customers about ‘bots improving customer service – but many which have been deployed so far have hit the trough of disillusionment.


4. Some of your predictions may seem like a long way off but how should organisations be preparing themselves for the future of tech disruption and ensuring their products and services are relevant and fit for purpose?


Tech is only part of the equation – and it’s often the easiest part. The hard part for future predictions are things like societal and cultural shifts. We can’t just look at the technology in isolation because we end up with technological determinism. If we look back at predictions from the 1960s, they tend to be full of flying cars. The technology may not quite be there yet, but the business case and infrastructure to support them also doesn’t exist. We have a similar challenge with drones now. The technology is there, but imagine a city with thousands of drones flying around delivering pizza to people who predominantly live in close packed flats. They are more likely to work in less populated areas.


This means that future planning needs to take a broader approach. You need to look at technologies, alongside culture, strategy, business case, environmental issues, ethics and trends in order to create a variety of paths to a possible future. That’s why we take the insights led approach we do, as well as looking at the technology trends.


5. Finally, what are your perceptions of the housing sector and the potential for technology to disrupt or improve services?


Much of the talk in housing is about smart technologies and the internet of things. The challenge with the adoption of these technologies is that customers may feel that all of their technologies are now eavesdropping on them - and they may not like that. This means that we need to create a “me”conomy. If we are going to harness customer data, we need to effectively sell the benefits of customers sharing that data in the first place – otherwise they may be very reluctant to do so. Benefits could range from personalised or proactive service, quicker response times, or vouchers or money off. The case for telehealth has always been about trading a degree of privacy for the ability to stay in your home. Similarly, telematics in a car is about reducing insurance premiums by proving you are driving sensibly (assuming you are).


Nicola Millard is speaking at HOMES UK this November. Book your place now!