AI and the future of work: Everything is changing

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

And that’s only on Microsoft’s 365 platforms.

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

Suddenly, AI tools that have long operated in the background of many services are now more powerful and more visible across a wide and growing range of workplace tools.

For example, Google’s new features promise to help “brainstorm” and “proofread” written work in Docs. In the meantime if your workplace uses the popular chat platform Slack, you’ll be able to have its ChatGPT tool talk to colleagues for you, potentially 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 large number of startups are also developing AI writing assistants and image generators.

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

But the sheer number of new options hitting the market is both staggering and, as with so much in the tech industry over the past decade, raises questions about whether they will live up to the hype or cause unintended consequences, including enabling cheating and eliminating the need for certain roles (although that may be the intent of some adopters).

Even the promise of greater productivity is unclear. The rise of AI-generated emails, for example, may increase productivity for the sender but reduce it for recipients who are inundated with longer-than-necessary computer-generated messages. And of course, just because everyone has the option of using a chatbot to communicate with colleagues doesn’t mean everyone will choose to do so.

Integrating this technology “into the basic pieces of productivity software that most of us use every day will have a significant impact on the way we work,” said Rowan Curran, analyst at Forrester. “But that change won’t sweep over everything and everyone tomorrow – learning how to best leverage these opportunities to improve and adjust our existing workflows will take time.”

A quick change of 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 the new tools promise to go far beyond that.

The renewed wave of AI product launches started almost four months ago when OpenAI released a version of ChatGPT on a limited basis, amaze users with generating human-like responses to user messages, pass exams at prestigious universities, and write persuasive essays on a variety of topics.

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

In early tests and a company demo, GPT-4 was used to draft court cases, build a working website from a hand-drawn sketch, and recreate iconic games such as Pong, Tetris, or Snake with 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 messages.

It’s the same technology that powers two new Microsoft features: “Co-pilot,” which will help edit, summarize, create, and compare documents across its platforms, and Business Chat, an agent that essentially accompanies the user as they work and try to understand and make sense of their Microsoft 365 data.

The agent will e.g. know what’s in a user’s email and on their calendar for the day, as well as the documents they’ve been working on, the presentations they’ve made, the people they’re meeting with, and the chats happening on their Teams platform, according to the company. Users can then ask Business Chat to perform tasks such as writing a progress report by summarizing all cross-platform documents on a particular project, then draft an email that could be sent to their team with an update.

Curran simply said how much these AI-powered tools will change work depends on the application. For example, a word processor can help generate sketches and drafts, a slideshow program can help speed up the design and content creation process, and a spreadsheet app should help multiple users interact with and make data-driven decisions. The latter, he believes, will have the greatest significance for the workplace in both the short and long term.

The discussion about how these technologies will affect jobs “should focus on job tasks rather than jobs as a whole,” he said.

Challenges ahead

Although OpenAI’s GPT-4 update promises fixes to some of its biggest challenges—from its potential to perpetuate biases, sometimes be factually incorrect, and respond in an aggressive manner—there is still room for some of these issues to find their way into the workplace, especially when it comes to interacting with others.

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

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

In a tweet earlier this week, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said wrote that the technology behind these systems is “still flawed, still limited, and still seems more impressive at first use than it does after you’ve spent more time with it.” The company reiterated in a blog post that “great caution should be exercised when using language model output, especially in high-stakes contexts.”

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

“Blind trust in these solutions is as dangerous as complete lack of faith in its effectiveness,” said Chandrasekaran. “Generative AI solutions can also invent 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’s data on which it is trained discontinued around September 2021). It should be up to users to do everything from double-checking accuracy to changing the language to reflect the tone they want. It will also be important to get backing and support across workplaces so that the tools can take off.

“Education, training and organizational change management are very important to ensure that employees support the effort and the tools are used in the way they were intended,” said Chandrasekaran.

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