Technology

Electronic brain

Already employed in Brazil by companies from different segments, the artificial intelligence resources will significantly change the landscape for production, services and labor market in the world.

By Marco Antonio Barbosa

April-June | 2017

Since the beginning of 2016, customers of the company MeCasei.com, headquartered in Porto Alegre, have a little extra help. The startup, created to support couples planning their wedding ceremony, began offering the services of a dedicated personal assistant. Meeka – is the name of the professional – helps the couple at all stages of the process. She checks suppliers (food, decorations, music, etc.) considering the proposed budget, searches for places to hold the party, helps to accompany the bride and groom’s schedule and agenda, is responsible for confirming the presence of guests and controls the gift list. At each step, the assistant talks with customers, makes suggestions and considers her work’s rating. Meeka is only not able to fulfill one step: attend the wedding. This is because… she does not exist.

Meeka is a virtual personal assistant endowed with artificial intelligence (AI). Through MeCasei.com’s smartphone application, she talks via text messages with users and reviews the to-do lists, alerts about key dates and calculate expenses. “It is the first program of its kind in the world,” says Daniel Tamiosso, the Chief Technology Officer of the company from Rio Grande do Sul. The idea of adding AI resources to supercharge the customer service emerged almost as a bet. “We already knew some similar systems, but, at the time, only large companies employed them. We managed to create a viable solution when applying a very specific scope of use of resources,” says Tamiosso.

Everyday Intelligence

Artificial intelligence occupies a privileged place in the popular imagination. The term reminds us to futurists androids and supercomputers with their own thoughts. However, it is not necessary to resort to science fiction to find increasingly commonplace examples of the use of AI in everyday life. The concept’s fundamental definition – machines capable of perceiving the surrounding environment and performing actions that maximize the chance to achieve certain objective – it is being incorporated into products and services already used by millions of people, including in Brazil.

“AI is a mature technology and present in all our lives. Even though sometimes we do not know that,” argues Alessandro Jannuzzi, Innovation and New Technologies director from Microsoft. “If before, we used the mouse and keyboard to interact with technology, now we use speech to communicate with your cell phones and other devices. AI is what makes this interaction more natural,” says Jannuzzi, who mentions Cortana, the virtual assistant fitted on the Windows operating system. “More than 145 million people use Cortana, and she has already answered more than 17 billion questions. It is pure day-to-day artificial intelligence.”

An approximate measure of the Brazilian AI market can be inferred from data provided by Jannuzzi. “In the last six months, about 10 thousand Brazilian professionals have completed online courses offered by Microsoft on these technologies,” says the executive. A total of more than 50,000 developers worldwide already work effectively with solutions of the organization’s AI platform, searching for solutions to complex problems in health, transport, security and the environment. “It is important to emphasize that these resources are also being applied in retail,” says Jannuzzi.

According to Jefferson Denti, Deloitte Consulting director, who is an expert in Advanced Analytics, AI can be used in many dimensions. “The most common are the replacement of human action, with robotics, or the expansion of human intelligence, through Advanced Analytics and augmented reality.” As part of a process of digital transformation, Denti points out that we are in an experimentation phase of the AI technologies, which uses machine learning (algorithms that allow the system to “learn” with its mistakes and make more accurate predictions, without the need for extra programming), Natural Language Processing (NLP) and deep learning in pilot and timely projects for finance, logistics, customer service, marketing and sales. “In the near future, we will have the business running on fully digital platforms in which, for example, the artificial intelligence and big data capabilities will be native.”

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Machines that learn

This is also the case of Cuco Health, a startup specializing in medical services, which has created a digital assistant to accompany health treatments. “Access to consultations, exams and therapies is difficult, expensive and limited. About 80% of the health care plan patients do not complete the fully prescribed treatment,” says Gustavo Comitre, founder of the company. Working with health plan operators, Cuco Health began offering a “virtual nurse” capable of answering basic questions and provide information on symptoms, medications and side effects. The application hasmachine learning features.

“We started with a database of 1,500 questions on a wide range of treatments. With machine learning, we will expand this database to 20 thousand questions”, explains Comitre. The “nurse” is able to solve on its own many of patients’ doubts – but also recognizes when the problem is not covered by its knowledge. “In that case, the application connects the user with a call center that has human nurses, on call 24/7,” says the businessman. Cuco Health’s next step is seeking partnerships also with the National Health System (SUS).

Cuco Health and MeCasei.com’s AI applications use resources from Watson, a cloud computing based set of services offered by IBM. Presented as a “system of cognitive computing that learns on a large scale, reasons in accordance with purposes and interacts with humans in a natural way,” Watson gained notoriety in Brazil in 2015, when Bradesco announced that it would use the system in its telephone service processes. “In a first moment, the interest was limited to large companies. However, we offer scalable solutions for all business sizes, including startups such as Cuco Health and MeCasei”, announces Guilherme Araujo, Watson’s leader at the Brazilian IBM.

The system’s cognition ability, explains Araújo, makes it applicable in virtually any business segment. “Watson can read” and interpret a giant quantity of data in very short periods of time. With this, over time, it can provide increasingly accurate insights and richer interactions, even in areas that traditionally do not depend on Information Technology (IT), such as medical research or legal practice,” says the IBM executive.

With a quite different profile from the startups mentioned above, Algar Telecom also streamlined its customer service with Watson’s help. Algar Group’s arm dedicated to telecommunications services has created, in 2017, a personal assistant named Ana, moved by AI, to service (via application or on the computer) the mobile broadband users’ demands (4G). Ana can respond to about 8 thousand customer’s questions, covering 30 service topics, from package prices and fees to other basic themes. The whole 4G customer service of the company started to be performed by Ana, which – per Eduardo Rabboni, Digital Transformation director – solves about 80% of the questions without human interference.

“For us, it was a successful example of affordable and practical digital transformation,” says Rabboni. “The response time is very fast; the difference is minimal in comparison with the assistance provided by a real person. And customers also have this perception.” In the case of Ana not being able to service the demand placed, the consumer is immediately transferred to a center with human service. “With the technical details resolved, we are now studying what other applications AI can be responsible for in the company. Areas such as asset management and relationships have great potential.”

The future of employment, redesigned

The spread of artificial intelligence is one of the aspects of digital transformation by which the contemporary society is passing through. When it comes to business, an area that will be directly impacted with the entry of AI will be employment offering. With machines capable of effectively occupy the place of humans in a myriad of activities, the world must rethink issues such as training, career planning and professional development.

“The arrival of AI will be very fast and can have effects comparable to those caused by climate change,” speculated the professor of the Faculty of Economics, Administration and Accountancy of the University of São Paulo (FEA-USP), Ricardo Abramovay. The expert points out that there are already data about these effects. “A recent study of the Oxford Martin School found that 47% of jobs in the United States are under threat of extinction because of AI. In China, the number rises to 65%”, says Abramovay. “Is this a world that will live without a job? We will live a paradox: a society with a large production potential, but without a distribution mechanism.”

“In the last 25 years, the dominant trend was the loss of jobs in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors as a result of technological advances,” says Alex Cole, a Deloitte United Kingdom’s economist and co-author of the study “Technology and people – The great job-creating machine” , issued by Deloitte in 2015. “jobs that involve routines – be it cognitive or manual – will be more affected, because they are activities in which technology can replace people more quickly. But these losses will be compensated and even exceeded with the creation of new jobs in segments such as personal assistance services, jobs in the creative sector, financial services and information technology companies. In these cases, the technology operates in a highly complementary way to human cognition”, ponders Cole.

"Artificial intelligence replaces part of current human labor. On the other hand, it also encourages the emergence of new industries and business models, requiring new human skills."

Jefferson Denti, Deloitte Consulting director expert in Advanced Analytics.

In the opinion of Jefferson Denti, from Deloitte, the AI impacts in the Brazilian market are not being underestimated and there is an important debate about the use of technologies. “In Brazil there is a mobilization of various actors in search of greater productivity and competitiveness. Industry associations, universities, government and companies discuss the use of new technologies such as AI and their potential impacts on society, such as the future of work, employees’ training, education and regulation, among other aspects.”