2019’s Secret Weapon in AI: The Humanities

4 minute read

Designing conversational AI experiences requires more than STEM degrees. Anticipating how users will engage with AI technology is particularly crucial, which is why companies in 2019 will increasingly hire people with diverse backgrounds into the development process.

This blog is part of our ongoing series, IPsoft’s 2019 AI Trends, detailing what we believe will be the dominant developments and movements in the Enterprise AI market next year. These blogs will be published regularly through the end of the year.

In one of his final public appearances as CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs appeared in front of a large image featuring two perpendicular street signs signifying the intersection of “Technology” and “Liberal Arts.” To Jobs, the marrying of these two worlds “yields the results that make our hearts sing,” which is another way of saying when we humanize technology, we create something people will love.

Indeed, it is in the interest of technology companies to follow Apple’s lead and craft machines with human sensibilities placed at the forefront. Enterprises that successfully strike the balance between engineering and empathy have a discernable competitive advantage over those that ignore users’ humanity. This lesson is proving to be particularly apt in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered UIs, which enable users to engage with technology through that most-human of mediums: conversation.

AI technologies have been around in various forms for decades, but their impact has largely been invisible and “under the hood” in the form of automation and robotics. However, in more recent years, AI has moved front-and-center with solutions like Amelia, which empower users to engage with digital systems just as they would with other humans.

This isn’t a starry-eyed argument for investing in the arts, but a practical consideration that is impacting businesses around the world right now.

With this shift in interaction toward natural communication and simple language, AI agents have to be nuanced in their approach to human interaction. They have to demonstrate empathy for the user. Simple chatbots fall short on many levels, predominantly because they are rigid and don’t think like we do, nor are they able to modulate their responses based on a user’s emotional state. Our natural responses to subtle cues have been hardwired into us through evolution and honed through experience. For AIs like Amelia, these conversational skills come from the human beings who train her.

While STEM skill sets continue to be fundamental to the development and maturation of Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies, they aren’t the skills most suited to crafting high-quality conversational experiences. For that, companies in 2019 need to look to backgrounds beyond science and math.

Technology Skill Sets 2.0

Educational institutions around the world are placing a renewed emphasis on STEM — often at the expense of the liberal arts. However, the future of technology may be defined by workers who combine STEM skill sets with elements of the humanities (a strategy sometimes referred to as STEAMD, which is STEM with an added “A” for Arts and “D” for Design).

One of the most compelling reasons for a new approach is that technology has, in effect, begun to disrupt itself. Just as Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) of the PC era simplified the UI and thus opened the power of computers to a wider swath of users, program design is now being simplified and becoming accessible to people from all sorts of backgrounds. Notably, so-called “low-code” or even “no-code” development platforms are opening the door to students and practitioners who don’t have advanced computer science training.

Indeed, studies have demonstrated that some of the most in-demand skill sets are in the realm of communication or “people skills” (principally when paired with basic digital literacy). This is particularly true with conversational AI. Indeed, when it comes to developing this next-generation AI, it is in an enterprise’s interests to build teams from a diverse set of professional backgrounds. This isn’t a starry-eyed argument for investing in the arts, but a practical consideration that is impacting businesses around the world right now.

Within IPsoft, our conversational technology has certainly benefited by incorporating designers with diverse backgrounds. When I started on my own journey within the company, I observed many conversations created by engineers simply lacked the humanity, nuance or empathy for the end user. This is why we created a new role many people may not be familiar with: Conversational Experience Designer (CED). Our CEDs come from a diverse set of backgrounds including advertising and design agencies, consultancies, publishing and service design companies. These skill sets are critical as conversation is far more of an art than a science, so it benefits early AI adopters to lean on experts in user experience, content strategy, script writing and linguistics.

CEDs focus on building the flow of a conversation, training the AI’s classifiers to comprehend users’ intentions and optimizing the experience to solve their issues as gracefully as possible. For example, they consider the word choices, tone and conversational journey that would be necessary for a patient inquiring about their medical test results, including all the possible directions that conversation could go. They plan for how the patient might ask other kinds of questions, and how to craft dialogue that is appropriately sensitive to the topic.

The trendline of humanized conversational technology will only be extended further in coming years as companies in the industry develop more advanced emotional functionality. This new realm of engagement includes sectors such as sentiment analysis, emotional analytics and facial expression comprehension. Down the road, machines won’t only have the ability to discern what users are intending with their words, but also users’ unspoken emotional states — and this will compel companies to hire diverse teams with both high emotional quotients (EQs) and IQs. As we move into 2019, it will be interesting to see which backgrounds ultimately become valuable in this sector.

Companies like IPsoft are actively building technologies that will reinvent the way that people work — and that’s not lost on us, because it’s even changed the way our own people work. We’ve gone through several revolutions where roles have transformed and new skill sets have been nurtured or acquired. It’s fascinating to observe that as technology evolves, roles or pursuits that were once considered impractical in the workforce are now becoming essential. If only my high school art teacher could see where I am now.

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