What if the robots were coming—not to take our jobs, but to help us do our jobs better? Virtual assistants, cropping up in homes and offices everywhere, already use AI (artificial intelligence) to automate mundane tasks. As cognitive computing evolves, natural language processing engines improve, and areas of AI are combined into new and creative applications, the ways that AI can boost performance on the job are innumerable. Rather than displacing human employees, these technologies could increase employee efficiency and improve productivity.

Chatbots take over repetitive tasks

Asking a phone or smart speaker to look up information, send a text or email, or set a timer is second nature to many people. In the office, smart assistants, on phones, tablets, or laptops, can arrange meetings, connect participants in conference calls, and send messages. In customer service, chatbots are ubiquitous, managing phone call routing and simple problem solving, and chatting with customers online—saving time that humans can spend on addressing the more challenging issues that arise.

Chatbots have made inroads in eLearning as well, providing coaching, repetitive learning drills, training reinforcement, task reminders, and other services to new and experienced employees. These verbal assistants might be ready for a promotion, though; some chat-based tools already offer a deeper level of aid.

AI engine assists with onboarding

Universities across the US are turning to chatbots to assist with their equivalent to new employee onboarding: helping new students navigate the admissions process and get acclimated to college, which includes completing a raft of paperwork and administrative processes. In Artificial Intelligence Across Industries: Where Does L&D Fit, Guild Research director Jane Bozarth describes AI-based tools that assist students with coursework and answer common questions. Many students never realize their “helper” isn’t human.

Similarly, corporations are increasingly turning over some repetitive onboarding tasks to AI-based support tools.

  • Companies that hire large numbers of employees can automate processes like reminding new employees to fill out a range of forms, teaching them about safety regulations and company policies, and getting them registered for various benefits.
  • AI-based performance support can bolster training as well, with targeted quizzes, reminders, and questions.
  • New Comcast sales reps get help from a chatbot to bolster the training they receive during ride-alongs with more senior employees, for example. The mobile training sends the new hires open-ended questions; they discuss their responses, and their observations from the day, with their managers or mentors.

Human-like virtual assistants enliven eLearning

Branching scenarios are a useful way to allow learners to try out various options while not experiencing the real-world consequences of making the wrong choice. But following text- and graphics-based eLearning scenarios can become dull. Trenario, an Israeli eLearning and performance support developer, has created virtual assistants to improve engagement in mobile training.

The company uses an AI engine to create scenarios tailored to a company’s training needs, based on based on information the client provides. Learners interact with virtual characters on the mobile app-based training, choosing responses in common situations. The learners can go back and try out multiple responses.

A machine learning engine analyzes each learner’s interactions with the virtual trainers and provides managers with a “map” of the learner’s weak areas. The app then targets additional training to each learner based on this map. Trenario clients report a significant boost in employee engagement with the training after the implementation of virtual coaches.

Voice-based assistant provides hands-free performance support

Virtual assistants are even making an appearance on the factory floor. A wearable virtual assistant that integrates sensor-based smart factory technologies—all AI-driven—with Google Glass Enterprise and Dialogflow natural language processing abilities provides hands-free performance support in factories and on production lines around the globe. Developed by Plataine, an Israeli software company, the omnipresent virtual assistant allows busy workers to use voice commands to access and update work orders, requisition supplies, and more—without using laptops, tablets, or even their hands.

AI engines plus language abilities add up to enhanced efficiency

The examples described here and in Bozarth’s report are only the tip of the iceberg. AI, cognitive computing, machine learning, and natural language processing technologies are advancing rapidly and will continue to offer opportunities for performance support and skills enhancement.

Rather than fearing that the robots are coming to take our jobs, L&D professionals can become leaders in exploring ways AI can boost performance by helping learners and employees work more efficiently and accurately. If robots are seen as helpers, rather than replacements, emerging AI technologies may be welcomed into companies, industries, and educational institutions around the world.

L&D teams can even use AI-based tools to automate some of their own work. The award-winning Heliograf, a bot, has written hundreds of articles on sports, finance, and elections results for the Washington Post; Heliograf’s kin do the same for other media giants. In L&D, a similar AI engine could scan content—internal or external—and data, identify and categorize relevant information, and generate content that follows an established template or format. With AI assistants performing some of the most labor-intensive or routine tasks, the L&D team is free to focus on strategic planning, critical thinking, and problem-solving—skills where the robots fall short. At least for now.