From artificial intelligence to robots, companies are finding new ways to automate the kinds of tasks that were previously the domain of humans only.

Out of the 1,349 companies that responded to this year's Inc. 5000 survey of the fastest-growing companies in America, 51 percent of CEOs said they plan to substitute human labor with technology. The most affirmative responses came from companies in advertising and marketing, business products and services, software, construction, and health, according to the survey. Their preferred method for automating labor? Sixty-one percent of respondents said they either already use or plan to use artificial intelligence to perform some human tasks.

It would be easy to see a stat like that and assume that the prevailing fears about A.I. stealing jobs--or worse, taking over the world--have already been proven true. The reality, however, is much more nuanced. While A.I. is eliminating some jobs, companies also are finding ways to incorporate the technology so that it performs more menial tasks enabling the humans to be more productive. Inc. spoke to fast-growing companies already using A.I. to find out how it's transforming their workplaces. 

New roles for workers

Deployed in the right way, A.I. is helping some companies free up employees to do more thoughtful tasks. At Vienna, Virginia-based marketing agency Surefire Local, CEO and founder Chris Marentis says in July he shifted about eight workers who used to perform technical search engine optimization work to more complex in-house cloud development projects.

He says the employees are enjoying the shift to the more highly skilled positions. They're learning different types of coding and are finding opportunities to grow. Surefire landed the No. 2409 on this year's Inc. 5000 list with $9.5 million in revenue last year. 

Meanwhile in Charleston, South Carolina, Call Experts, a family-owned-and-operated call center, has been using A.I. to automate more of its operations, freeing up about 30 percent of its 175 customer call representatives to act more like "consultants." The company, which pulled in $8.4 million in revenue last year and has clients in government services, human resources, and utilities, made the shift about a year and a half ago. These employees now are tasked with classifying issues and troubleshooting for clients rather than message taking or routing calls. 

Over the past three years, the company has invested $50,000 in third-party A.I. software Cirrus Connects--which learns from prior interactions with customers and the web to better understand what customers want--to automate receptionists' work. "The task of message taking is becoming obsolete," says CEO Abby Leibowitz. 

In the future, Call Experts--No. 3939 on the Inc. 5000 list--wants to equip employees with video chatting, so they can diagnose issues and give repair quotes without needing a human to go on-site. Leibowitz also​ plans on hiring additional developers to build out a conversational A.I. system to handle even more questions and answers from customers via online chat. 

Like Leibowitz, Justin Crosslin, co-managing principal at Crosslin Technologies, a Nashville-based IT service provider (No. 2281 on the Inc. 5000 with $2.1 million in revenue), says that implementing A.I. software will allow his employees to take on "consulting" roles, which in turn, will lead to better service for clients. 

Crosslin is looking into using third-party software to make his forensics department more effective in detecting fraud--finding anomalies in the data they wouldn't have detected before, says Crosslin. Since the software is an investment--it costs $50,000 to $100,000 a year--the company plans on testing it out first in February before committing. He says the testing phase will also be crucial for getting buy-in for the team--the employees will need to adjust to a new workflow that will automate some of the work they're used to doing.

The human touch

As advanced as some A.I. systems have become, they're not at a point where they can operate without humans. Washington,D.C.-based legal services company ReviewRight, which helps clients find appropriate candidates to review legal documents, uses in-house A.I. programs to analyze resumes and help rate them. (The company, which landed No. 1171 on this year's Inc. 5000 list and reached $12.9 million in sales, was formerly Inspired Review before being acquired in April by services firm HaystackID.) The program is far from perfect--human reviewers still review resumes for overall accuracy, especially those in a foreign language, which the A.I. can't accurately grade. 

Last year, Kevin Yamazaki, founder of Culver City, California-based Sidebench, a consulting and design software company that ranked No. 1309 on the Inc. 5000, decided to replace both of his executive assistants with an A.I. assistant developed by Clara Labs--saving his company, which pulled in $3.1 million in revenue last year, $30,000 a year for each assistant. "I trust Clara more than I trust the other assistants," says Yamazaki. Clara is a bot that's designed to handle your calendar--you cc her on correspondence and she automatically schedules meetings based on everyone's availability.

But, technical challenges pop up. Yamazaki decided to use Clara specifically because it's an assistant that combines machine learning and human expertise. When the A.I. assistant can't decipher tricky language in an email, she automatically sends the email over to a human staffer. Clara has been known to make mistakes, such as accidentally scheduling meetings over the weekend, causing clients to email the bot directly and advising her not to work so hard or to enjoy the weekend. (There's even a Slack channel where employees post these mishaps.) Yamazaki says that A.I. is far from perfect and is wary about it. "The cost of a shitty exchange with a very high client--[it's not worth] the few minutes that it saves you," he says.

"It's interesting that a service that is helping humans to be efficient uses A.I.--but A.I. needs humans to refine and accelerate it," he adds.

Published on: Dec 19, 2018