Talk is Cheap – And Now it May Even Buy the Whisky

All of us want a better life, not just for ourselves but for our familites and the societies we live in. The key to realising this dream is productivity.

Productivity is a key driver of global efforts toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Ensuring Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; Responsible Consumption and Production, and Reducing Inequalities are all enabled and supported by greater productivity.

As consumers (and all of us are) in competitive economies we enjoy the fruits of productivity gains when a company’s cost savings are passed onto us in the form of lower prices, (which in turn creates higher demand and an increase in employment).

And yet, despite its obvious importance, we face a real crisis in productivity.

The productivity crisis

Since the 1970s trillions of dollars have been spent on ICT in pursuit of efficiency gains. However, according to research by The Resolution Foundation (a UK-based, non-partisan, think-tank that works to improve the living standards of those in Britain on low to middle incomes) productivity has either flatlined or been in decline in major economies around the world.

In South Africa, where labour productivity is in negative territory, the situation is even more dire, according to the International Labour Organisation’s data.

What is going on?

Why have these continuous investments in ICT, on the face of it, not paid off? Well the answer is complex as productivity is a difficult concept to measure but there are many reasons that may explain it and, more importantly, new developments in ICT (under the broad rubric of the Digital Revolution) that may turn the decline around.

Conversational user interfaces

One of the things that has happened, contiguous with the penetration of ICTs, is the emergence of the knowledge worker. And when you realise that, arguably, the key tools of the knowledge worker have been the keyboard and the mouse you start to get a hint as to where one of the problems lies. It doesn’t matter how much memory you have, how fast your CPU, or how fat your pipe – you can only type at a certain speed (in my case that’s darned slow).

No matter how deft you are and how good your hand-eye coordination it takes some time to position a cursor where it needs to be on a screen. While all this is happening those heady CPU cycles for which you paid so much are twiddling their thumbs – waiting. And, we all know that you shouldn’t text while driving or operating machinery so those fleeting but valuable thoughts that need to be captured must wait until you are at your desk.

This is now changing fast. The combinatorial effect of exponential progress in cloud computing, in-memory computing, Big Data, specialised Artificial Intelligence chip-sets and better algorithms (including natural language processing) enables a better way for us to interact with ICT systems – by conversing with them.

At SAP we believe that the great user experiences that consumers enjoy via Chatbots like Apple’s SIRI, Amazon Echo and Google Home will have an even more profound impact in the work setting where productivity improvements have a great socio-economic impact. When we can talk to our business processes and analytical systems in real-time we lift today’s constraints in a way that not only improves productivity but that also improves employee engagement and collaboration.

That’s why SAP CoPilot, the Digital Assistant for the enterprise is receiving widespread attention across the SAP ecosystem and why SAP recently acquired RECAST.AI the market leader in technology for conversational chatbots and high-performance natural language processing that supports more than 20 languages.

But there’s another reason why talking to our systems is important. Consider the fact that in many parts of the world societies have become more unequal (South Africa being a case in point). Many people are shut out from economic activity or from interacting with their government’s agencies because they are illiterate. As modern technologies emerge with a concomitant need for new skills (which industrial-era education systems are unable to deliver) the risk is that this digital divide becomes deeper and wider.

Imagine then, the possibilities for bringing more people into the ranks of the economically productive because they can now participate in digital manufacturing and supply-chain systems by interacting with systems in their native tongue. Imagine the possibilities for upliftment when small scale farmers and businesses can receive advice or education at the point and time of need in their own tongues.

The future sounds good

It’s early days in the deployment of Conversational User Interfaces but there is no doubt that they will change the way we live and work. We are already seeing how they can improve call centre and ecommerce interactions to say nothing of the convenience they offer in the home environment. They have the potential to speed up business processes, to make system interactions more engaging and to bring the currently less productive into the workforce and society. Talking to our systems will take us to new heights. If you aren’t listening, you risk falling behind.

Private and public-sector organisations with all their multifarious complexities; societies, from the family to the nation; economies, from the subsistence farmer to the giant multinational – all are inherently human undertakings fuelled by desires and ideas and made possible through collaboration, conversations and amazing technologies. That’s why SAP will be at the SingularityU South Africa Summit in Johannesburg in October 2018. And that’s why we look forward seeing you there to talk about how to help the world run better and improve peoples’ lives.