Do Siri and Other Personal Assistants Really Improve Productivity?


Every day we interact with machines that—on some level or another—make decisions we don’t know about. For the most part, this is helpful. Try doing all the calculations that power your new iPhone 7 and see how smug you feel then. But as AI continues to evolve and researchers find new tasks the technology can perform with competence, questions are being asked about the relationship it will have with the workforce and productivity in general.

One optimistic sketch of that relationship looks a lot like how you already interact with your phone. In this scenario, prognosticators believe that AI will simply help collect and refine information that we humans can then use to make better decisions and accomplish more every day. All of a sudden, AI stops being thought of as “artificial intelligence” and transforms into “extended intelligence.” It’s a conduit between the world’s information and your brain.

In a recent interview with Wired, President Barack Obama said that AI is already “seeping into our lives in all sorts of ways that we just don’t notice.” While specialized AI technologies have been around for quite some time, thanks to the evolution of technology, “computers can figure out increasingly complex tasks.” These advances have the potential to impact all sectors of our economy from medicine to transportation to how electricity is distributed. “It promises to create a vastly more productive and efficient economy,” Obama continued. “If properly harnessed, [AI] could generate enormous prosperity and opportunity for people.” At the same time, the president said, it could also make us safer by removing human error from any number of tasks.

But AI, of course, is not without its downsides, too. In the Wired interview, President Obama said that the technology may eliminate a number of jobs (or at least force folks to think about their jobs differently), suppress wages and increase inequality.

Still, by approaching the potential of AI with open-mindedness and plenty of foresight, we can virtually ensure that AI works to benefit all of us (or, conversely, drastically reduce the chances AI enslaves all of us).

Machine Learning & Prediction

As the Harvard Business Review points out, there are many budding parallels between today’s nascent era of AI and the digital boom of the 1990s. Two decades ago, technology helped bring the costs associated with communication and searching for information down tremendously. As a result, a number of complementary technologies, goods and services emerged.

Fast forward to today, where AI—which is predictive technology—continues to grow. Eventually, this will result in the cost of prediction plummeting down to earth. With cheaper costs will come widespread adoption. Tasks like demand forecasting and inventory management will become spectacularly simplified thanks to the predictive capabilities of machines. Because it’ll be cheaper to try, we will also decide to apply prediction technologies to a slew of other problems for the first time—leading to unfathomable breakthroughs.

The end result of all this? We’ll have more data than ever before that can help guide and influence our decisions. But making the right decisions—which are arrived at using judgment—will become that much more important in our society.

Those with the best judgment skills may very well become the millionaires and billionaires of tomorrow.

Humans + Machines = Awesome

So what might the future of work look like?

Meet Stitch Fix, a company that promises its customers their own personal stylist. You’d think that such an operation would require founder Katrina Lake to oversee warehouses upon warehouses of clothing, but you’d be wrong.

Turns out Stitch Fix asks its customers to submit relevant information—everything from body measurements to brand preferences to Pinterest data—and uses algorithms to shop a variety of vendors and pair customers with apparel items an AI thinks they’ll like. Once the machines spit out recommendations, a human stylist reviews them and chooses which clothes to ship to customers, who then have the ability to return anything they don’t like.

This approach has enabled the company to operate very cost-effectively, Lake says. Without machine learning, her competitors (like Gilt Groupe and Fab) were hamstrung by poor inventory decisions and unsustainable promotions—something that simply doesn’t affect Stitch Fix. By integrating modern AI and machine learning tools into their business processes, Stitch Fix’s team is able to be much more accurate with their selections and, as a result, much more productive.

Apply this idea to any other job. AI can help lead us toward the solutions we’re looking for quickly, giving us many options to choose from. It’ll be up to us to make the final decisions.

OK, but what about Siri?

It’s hard to believe that Siri was introduced more than five years ago with the iPhone 4S. While the AI-powered personal assistant claims it can help boost your productivity, the tool still leaves a lot to be desired for a lot of users at the time of this writing.

That may be due to the fact that a number of users probably don’t know specifically how Siri works or what she’s capable of. Siri’s knowledge base isn’t limited; she can learn about your life, how you pronounce words, and more.

Even if Siri isn’t the best productivity tool on the market, it will almost certainly improve over time. Here are some ways you can already use the technology. And who knows? In the coming years, you may rely on Siri to get these things done every day:

  • Search. Siri might have trouble understanding what you’re asking her to help you find. But in the future, she’ll know exactly what you’re saying. Use Siri to find the information you’re searching for in an instant.
  • Voice dictation. Humans speak three to six times faster than they write. As Siri continues to become more sophisticated, it’s not hard to imagine dictating emails or even composing blogs using only your voice.
  • Reminders. Know you’re going to be near the supermarket later today and need to pop in for a gallon of milk? Tell Siri to remind you when you’re in the area. She will.

Will AI and personal assistants help us become more productive in the future? Almost definitely, assuming we use the tools correctly. In an ideal world, AIs will help us outsource all of our more menial tasks—meaning we’ll have more time to focus on the complex problems facing our industries and our world.

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