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[Interview] Rhonda Scharf, Author Of “Alexa Is Stealing Your Job”

Artificial intelligence is taking over. Ask Alexa to call a client or confirm your schedule for the day, and she does just that immediately. Ask her a question, give her a command, or just share a joke together, and she becomes your new best employee.

A conversation with Alexa can nix the need for millions of front-line workers and has forever changed the workplace. Companies must keep up with AI to keep their customers, and today’s employees must find new ways to provide value to their companies if they want to keep their jobs.

In the new book “Alexa Is Stealing Your Job: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Your Future, workplace expert Rhonda Scharf shows readers how a willingness to adapt to this “new normal” will keep you relevant in these changing times.

We recently sat down with Rhonda to discuss what entrepreneurs and professionals might be missing about AI, where humans have the upper hand, and how AI will influence our work in the future.

Here is some of our conversation:

What in your professional background led you to focus on artificial intelligence?

I’m an efficiency expert. If there’s an easier, faster, better way to do something, then I need to know not only what that is, but how I can implement it into my life and business.

I specialize in workplace administration. I used to work in IT, so the blend of administration and IT fits perfectly with my brain and work style. When Amazon introduced Alexa, I became more aware of the integration of AI into every aspect of our lives.

When I started talking about AI to other people, I discovered there was a lot of fear and confusion. I tried to resolve both by explaining how AI works and how it’s going to improve our personal and work lives. My book came about because I realized many people have these fears, and I was in a unique position to help them.

In your book, you contrast AI’s strengths with human skills. Where do humans have the upper hand?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, emotional intelligence (EI) will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020, and this is an area where humans excel. AI is only able to handle task-based skills. If you can write out instructions to do something, artificial intelligence is likely able to replicate it. AI “learns” from what it does, so it can learn to have conversations and complete tasks.

What AI isn’t quite as adept at is learning EI. When you have emotional intelligence, you’re able to understand and cooperate with others. You don’t only hear others, but you listen — and understand — what’s being said or not said. EI allows for empathy and thoughtfulness. While not all people are particularly good at these skills, machines aren’t able to authentically perform them at all.

One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou, who says, “People will never forget how you made them feel.” While robots, such as Sofia, are able to have conversations with us and respond appropriately, we know they’re machines. That doesn’t make us “feel” good about what they say, as it feels like they’re lacking authenticity.

Humans definitely have the upper hand with EI, and we need to maximize the relationship skills that will soon be required in the workforce.

Many young entrepreneurs have grown up with technology. What might they be missing about AI in the workplace?

The benefit of growing up with technology is that the fear factor is gone. Young entrepreneurs automatically assume there “must be” a technical solution for every challenge that comes their way, and they actively look for it.

What they may be missing, however, is that there might be a solution that avoids the problem altogether. Not a fix, but a better way of doing things. Many of us do “what needs to be done,” and then we fix problems when things don’t go according to plan. Instead of waiting until things need to be fixed, we should see if AI can step in to prevent problems in the first place.

For instance: The traditional way of buying office supplies is to keep track of what’s being used and replenish supplies as needed. The person in charge of supplies maintains a manual account (or inventory) and then orders from a store or catalog.

In disorganized workplaces, office supplies are ordered when someone notices there’re gone. Remember the days of “Where’s the printer toner?” panic calls? If someone doesn’t keep track of supplies, all orders end up being reactive.

Young entrepreneurs would naturally assume this isn’t efficient. Instead, they’d order the products online and have them delivered, or they’d set up an automatic delivery of supplies every few months. The young entrepreneur would know that this “old” system could be automated to save time and effort. There would be fewer panicked calls from employees looking for supplies. There might be an abundance of supplies. Sure, there might be times when supplies weren’t delivered quickly enough to avoid running out, but generally, the ordering of supplies would be more automated.

So how could AI streamline this process further? Instead of an automatic replacement every three months, AI would know when supplies were getting low and order them accordingly. Similar to the sensor in a hotel’s minibar, AI would monitor supply levels, automatically order replacements, and have them shipped and delivered without any human interaction at all.

Young entrepreneurs — and many professionals — tend to look for solutions within systems we currently have. What they don’t necessarily think of are ways to fix things that aren’t broken, or systems that don’t require human input whatsoever.

Artificial intelligence sounds intimidating, but you showcase ways AI can easily boost efficiency and keep customers happy. What are a few examples?

Netflix (and others) are already using AI to keep their customers happy. We’re familiar with the “since you’ve watched X, you’ll probably enjoy Y” recommendations, and they’re typically accurate. Netflix, using artificial intelligence, uses predictive analytics to identify the types of shows and movies you’ll enjoy. The same is true for online shopping. Companies use software to predict, based on past purchases, what you may wish to buy in the future. And, yes, people can do that too, but it requires them to have a lot of knowledge about what you’ve purchased in the past, as well as the state of the store’s current and future inventory.

Assume I’m shopping at Macy’s. The store representative doesn’t know me or what I’ve purchased in the past, and it’s not easy for her to find that information out. This makes it very difficult for her to make recommendations on what she can (or should) offer to me.

Here’s another example: I eat out a lot. When I go to a restaurant, I like it when my server makes suggestions about what I may want to order. The server asks me questions about what I like and gives me advice that goes beyond the daily special. I almost always order what he or she suggests.

In my experience, only servers in high-end restaurants make these suggestions. When I find myself at a chain restaurant, I’m often told that “everything on the menu is good” without a specific recommendation at all. The inventory in a chain restaurant isn’t extensive. There are a limited number of items on any menu—so why don’t servers make suggestions more often? Why don’t they pay attention to customers’ orders so they can make wine or dessert suggestions? It would enhance the diner’s experience and result in higher tips.

AI would know what I like to eat, my allergies, and my preferences. It could easily make suggestions for me, like Netflix and Amazon are currently doing.

How do you imagine the office — and business — of the future?

I see us spending more time working virtually while being efficient and creative. I believe that relationships will be the core value offered by companies and brands. The more that companies can preserve customer relationships, the less likely customers are to move to the competition.

Right now, many of us don’t have time to build relationships because we’re too busy checking off to-do lists of tasks. But in the future, building relationships will fill our time, because they’ll be the differentiator.

In the business of the future, we’ll monitor that automations are running as planned and getting things done. We’ll spend time “training” AI to do its job. We’ll still be working long hours, but our work-life balance might be a little better as we won’t be commuting, won’t be as task-oriented, and will be more creative — which is better for balance.

 

To learn more about Rhonda Scharf and her new book, visit her website.

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Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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