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The Bots Are Coming!

Automated and AI-driven Programs for Business

October 15, 2018
By Elena Langdon

Photo: Fotolia by Adobe

The technology behind once too-good-to-be-true tools like facial recognition and 3D printing has advanced by leaps and bounds. Many of us own or pine for “smart” devices and use dozens of apps a day for personal purposes. So what about business?

How far can automation and AI help boost productivity and profit at work? And what are the no-go zones for this exciting area of development?

First, some terms
“Automation” and “AI” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. “Automation” refers to processes that can be undertaken through a chain of events that trigger each other, without human interference. Contemporary business examples would be Hootsuite or Buffer; the programs that help automate a business’s social media participation.

“Artificial intelligence” refers to machines making choices and learning from them based on their programming. There are different levels of AI, and the most powerful two — levels at which a machine can understand human thoughts, and be self-aware, have not yet been reached. So what now?


The digital-assistant revolution
While C-3PO from Star Wars is not our immediate reality, AI is a driving force behind many business applications.

Personal digital assistants like Siri and Cortana are good examples of AI-driven programs that can boost productivity, save time, and facilitate our lives. With hese programs you can delegate scheduling, play music, and check the stock market through voice recognition technology.

Google Duplex is a newer digital assistant that takes automation to a whole new level. It calls to schedules appointments, request information, and order food. Instead of speaking with a typical robotic tone, Google Duplex mimics real speech patterns and uses fillers like “um” and “hmm.” This bot has human responses and can carry on conversations. Its reception has evoked a mixture of awe and trepidation.

Proceed with care
This raises ethical and privacy concerns. Should human receptionists know they are talking to a machine? Is the conversation recorded so that Google can learn from the exchange?

Some types of AI-driven programs must be approached with caution when it comes to business due to the risks involved. Despite recent advances in deep learning, machine translation is not like Google Duplex: It does not “sound” human. More importantly, accuracy is seriously compromised with automatic translation. Think of menus with indecipherable dishes like, “the water fries the potato.”

Holding a conversation with someone in a language you don’t know by using “translator earbuds” might work for casual exchanges with inconsequential outcomes. However, if you need to speak to an employee about her performance or to an international branch manager, you cannot rely on AI to accurately transmit your message. Between speech recognition flaws, cultural differences, and the incredible creativity behind any human being’s speech, it’s best to stick to a professional interpreter for bilingual business communication.

Lawyer up or bot up?
AI-driven programs could review legal documents at a fraction of the cost of a lawyer. This review process takes humans significant time, and lawyers take years to master it, yet computers have apparently learned the skill. That said, even app’s websites make it very clear that the apps will not provide legal advice, and that it should be used only for the specific purpose of reviewing documents. The formulaic language and boilerplate nature of legal documents lends itself well to AI, and frees up time and money for actual legal strategy. In some ways, it’s similar to translation — you can get some entry-level tasks done, just not anything that requires tactics or nuanced meaning. And of course, nothing that involves any risk to your business.  

Look both ways before you leap
Next time you see an ad for a new app that looks like a miracle cure for what’s ailing your business, by all means, don’t ignore it. Just be sure to research the program and consider its uses. The more complex the task, and the more it involves human reasoning, the less likely it will work for business. Work patterns and skills are certainly changing, but the bots are not taking over just yet. o

Elena Langdon is a certified Portuguese-to-English translator and interpreter and an active member of the American Translators Association (ATA). The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 103 countries. For more information on ATA and to hire a translation or interpreting professional, please visit