IBM had a briefing this week on how its Watson AI product was used at the U.S. Open  and something jumped out at me that could help overtaxed workers get more work done.

I’m hearing a lot of complaints about people having to jump into back-to-back virtual meetings – and getting less done as a result. With fires up and down the west coast, the ongoing pandemic, weird weather and – in the U.S. – an election, folks are getting overwhelmed. What struck me this week is that Watson could serve as the basis for a virtual assistant to attend meetings (particularly those that are overlapping), take notes, and help us focus on the items to which we need to pay attention. 

What IBM Watson has been doing at the U.S. Open is providing real-time text feedback to those asking questions or wanting to talk about the event. But if it could be trained to a worker’s interests, it could likely attend meetings for you, respond as you would to basic questions, and alert you when you need to engage personally. It could use natural language processing, summarize parts of the meeting that specifically interest you, and free up more of your time to do the actual work.

Let’s talk about how AI could improve productivity.

Project Debator to AI Lieutenant

I had a chance to watch Watson debate a professional debater (Project Debater) several years ago; I still recall thinking that the computer came off as funnier, more interesting, and more likable than the pro – even though it lost the debate. (I thought the judge was biased and, interestingly, one of the discussions about the U.S. Open was how Watson would make a fairer judge or empire.)

The ability to interact in real-time with the massive training databases set up for the debate had me thinking about the broader applications for this technology. For example, when using it for meetings, you likely could create a voice interface and avatar that sounds and looks like you, though I’d recommend against doing so; if the computer responds poorly, that would reflect on the human it was emulating.

More likely would be a new type of digital assistant that’s uniquely trained on your job responsibilities and interests. Threshholds could be set up so that when the AI couldn’t answer a question or when attendees needed a commitment, the employee/executive could receive the query and respond (which the AI would then use to make or decline the commitment on the employee’s behalf) or join the meeting live.

This capability would be less a digital assistant and more a digital lieutenant or executive secretary who could step in, freeing up workers for other things. Looking at past decisions and past behavior, this digital lieutenant could impart knowledge, both from the executive and from corporate and public data, to help facilitate the meeting.

It could do other things like alerting you to external events that impact your job or quality of life. For instance, what if you have team members who are about to be displaced by fires or are likely to be hit by a weather event or pandemic hot spot?  Keeping track of alerts is often beyond our capacity, but if team members are compromised, others will have to step into their roles – something they can’t do in a  timely manner if they are only aware of the problem after it occurs. 

Over the years, I’ve had teams disrupted by divorces, affairs (sometimes related), sickness, death, car accidents, weather events, 9/11, and most recently, fires. But I’ve often found out about the problem only when deadlines are missed, or a team underperforms because a team member can no longer contribute. A timely notice would almost always have led to decisions that would have mitigated the adverse impact.

We don’t have the layers of administrators, assistants, and secretaries we once had to provide that kind of notice, but we do have a tool like Watson, which could fill that role. 

Wrapping up

At the U.S. Open, IBM demonstrated that Watson, using natural-language processing and training, can interact with people and provide them with critical, timely advice and conversation. Given one of the big problems during this pandemic is keeping people productive during an unprecedented number of distractions and risks, it seems that IBM’s maturing Watson platform could supplement and assist executives and team leaders. That could keep them focused on the tasks at hand and dramatically reduce their need to attend time-sucking events. 

Watson, or something like it, could be used to significantly increase how effectively we use time and how many things we get done. Watson could evolve to become an  essential productivity tool beyond anything we’ve had so far.  

The next generation of AI could have a far more significant impact than any of us now realize. Of course, Watson probably saw this coming years ago. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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