AI and the future of work: everything is about to change

New York (CNN) In just a few months, you’ll be able to ask a virtual assistant to transcribe meeting notes during a work call, summarize long email threads to quickly draft suggested responses, quickly create a specific chart in Excel, and turn a Word document into a PowerPoint presentation in seconds.

And that’s just on Microsoft 365 platforms.

Over the past week, a rapidly evolving artificial intelligence landscape appeared to be moving forward again. Microsoft and Google unveiled new AI-powered features for their signature productivity tools, and OpenAI unveiled its next-generation version of the technology that powers its viral chatbot tool, ChatGPT.

AI tools, which have long been running in the background of many services, are suddenly more powerful and more visible in a wide and growing range of workplace tools.

Google’s new features, for example, promise to help “brainstorm” and “correct” written work in Docs. In the meantime, if your workplace uses the popular chat platform Slack, you can have your ChatGPT tool talk to your colleagues, possibly asking it to write and reply to new messages and summarize conversations in channels.

OpenAI, Microsoft and Google are at the forefront of this trend, but they are not alone. IBM, Amazon, Baidu and Tencent are working on similar technologies. A long list of startups are also developing AI writing assistants and image generators.

The argument from tech companies is clear: artificial intelligence can make you more productive and eliminate the grunt work. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a presentation Thursday, “We believe this next generation of AI will unlock a new wave of productivity growth: powerful co-pilots designed to take the burden off our daily tasks and jobs , freeing us to rediscover the joy of creation.”

But the sheer number of new options hitting the market is dizzying and, as with so much else in the tech industry over the last decade, raises questions about whether it will live up to the hype or cause unintended consequences, including the possibility of cheating and removing the need for certain roles (although this may be the intention of some adopters).

Even the promise of higher productivity is unclear. The rise of AI-generated emails, for example, could increase sender productivity but decrease it for recipients inundated with longer-than-necessary computer-generated messages. And of course, just because everyone has the option to use a chatbot to communicate with their peers doesn’t mean that everyone chooses to.

The integration of this technology “into the core pieces of productivity software that most of us use every day will have a significant impact on the way we work,” said Forrester analyst Rowan Curran. “But this change won’t affect everything and everyone tomorrow; learning how to better use these capabilities to improve and fine-tune our existing workflows will take time.”

A quick change in workplace tools

Anyone who has ever used an autocomplete option when writing an email or sending a message has already experienced how AI can speed up tasks. But new tools promise to go much further.

The renewed wave of AI product releases began nearly four months ago when OpenAI released a limited version of ChatGPT, surprising users by generating human responses to user prompts, passing exams at prestigious universities, and writing compelling essays on a variety of topics.

Since then, the technology, in which Microsoft made a “multi-billion dollar” investment earlier this year, has only gotten better. Earlier this week, OpenAI unveiled GPT-4, a more powerful version of the technology underpinning ChatGPT that promises to blow previous iterations out of the water.

In early tests and a company demo, GPT-4 was used to draft lawsuits, create a working website from a hand-drawn sketch, and recreate iconic games like Pong, Tetris, or Snake with a lot of little or no prior coding experience.

GPT-4 is a large language model that has been trained on large amounts of online data to generate responses to user requests.

It’s the same technology that underpins two new Microsoft features: “Copilot,” which will help edit, summarize, create, and compare documents across its platforms, and Business Chat, an agent that basically moves with the user while they work and proof to understand and make sense of your Microsoft 365 data.

The agent will know, for example, what’s in a user’s email and calendar for the day, as well as the documents they’ve been working on, the presentations they’ve given, the people they’re meeting with, and the chats that take place on its Teams platform, according to the company. Users can ask Business Chat to perform tasks such as writing a status report summarizing all documents across platforms for a given project, and then compose an email that could be sent to their team with an update.

Curran said fair how much these AI-powered tools will change work depends on the application. For example, a word processing application could help generate sketches and drafts, a slideshow program could help speed up the design and content creation process, and a spreadsheet application should help more users to interact and make decisions based on data. The latter he believes will have the biggest impact on the workplace in both the short and long term.

Discussion of how these technologies will affect workplaces “should focus on job tasks rather than jobs as a whole,” he said.

Challenges ahead

While OpenAI’s GPT-4 update promises solutions to some of its biggest challenges, from its potential to perpetuate bias, sometimes being incorrect, and responding aggressively, there’s still the possibility of some of these problems find their way into the workplace, especially when it comes to interacting with others.

Arijit Sengupta, CEO and founder of AI solutions company Aible, said that a problem with any large language model is that it tries to please the user and usually accepts the premise of the user’s statements.

“If people start gossiping about something, they will accept it as a norm and then start generating content (related to it),” Sengupta said, adding that it could increase interpersonal problems and become bullying in the office

In a tweet earlier this week, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman he wrote that the technology behind these systems “is still flawed, still limited, and seems more impressive on first use than after spending more time with it.” The company reiterated in a blog post that “extreme care should be taken when using language model results, especially in high-risk contexts.”

Arun Chandrasekaran, an analyst at Gartner Research, said organizations will need to educate their users about what these solutions are good for and what their limitations are.

“Blind trust in these solutions is as dangerous as a complete lack of faith in their effectiveness,” Chandrasekaran said. “Generative AI solutions may also fabricate facts or present inaccurate information from time to time, and organizations must be prepared to mitigate this negative impact.”

At the same time, many of these applications are not up-to-date (GPT-4 data on which it is trained cuts around September 2021). It will be the users’ responsibility to do everything from checking for accuracy to changing the language to reflect the tone they want. It will also be important to get buy-in and support across all workplaces for the tools to take off.

“Training, education and organizational change management is very important to ensure that employees support the efforts and that the tools are used in the way they were intended,” said Chandrasekaran.

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