Exclusive | Cisco: AI in the office, and the future of work
Cisco WebEx

Exclusive | Cisco: AI in the office, and the future of work

In a UK exclusive, Cisco invited Internet of Business to its R&D labs in Oslo, Norway, to learn how the company is striving to enable the future of work.

As the largest networking company in the world, Cisco has a strong platform and knowledge base on which to build a teleconferencing business. Over the past few years it has been exploring the potential of AI to make its WebEx video collaboration solutions more capable and give them a greater role in the digital workplace.

In Cisco’s own business, 61 percent of its employees don’t need to be in the office, while meetings using video are markedly shorter than conference calls, according to internal research.

WebEx is essentially the same app across different devices, including phones, tablets, laptops, and conference screens, meaning that colleagues can easily communicate and share content remotely, and seamlessly switch between devices.

Work, Cisco believes, is now all about what you do – where you do it is increasingly irrelevant.

Need for speed

Video collaboration tools and other software have been helping teams work together for years, but Cisco’s technology is worth a closer look as it focuses on the future of the office.

Behind the scenes is a wealth of AI and computer vision technology that wouldn’t be out of place in an autonomous car. And it’s often technology that’s out of sight and out of mind, that is the most helpful in our day-to-day lives.

As industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa once put it:

Design needs to be plugged into human behaviour. Design dissolves in behaviour.

Such technology becomes more significant when we consider that the way businesses operate is changing. KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook 2018 illuminates this point. It found that 82 percent of CEOs questioned whether their products would be relevant just three years from now.

Where companies used to be arranged in hierarchies and lines of command, many are now taking a more agile approach. The hierarchical system may allow for a repeatable structure at scale, but nimble start-ups often operate more effectively. In such organisations, work is self-initiated: you find the people you want to work with, and when the project is done, you dissolve the team – create, do, disband.

This circular take on collaboration means that many people will be members of multiple teams, and this will affect the tech they use, while the technology affects the way they work: a symbiotic relationship.

The war for talent

At the same time, business leaders are trying to differentiate their workplaces and attract the best talent. The KPMG report revealed that today’s greatest employee challenges are disparate tools, inefficient workplaces, and new regulations. Digital technology will play a key role in overcoming these hurdles.

IBM’s Oslo offices, which were recently redesigned around Cisco’s collaboration products (see pictures below), represent the modern workplace in action, featuring hot-desking, large, verdant open spaces, and meeting hubs kitted out with videoconferencing facilities. It’s not cheap, but its an ideal to strive towards when seeking to attract the best talent and foster creativity.

There’s nothing ground-breaking here, at least on the surface; nothing that requires vast changes in the way we work or steep learning curves. And that’s the point.

Much of Cisco’s design focus is on making the user experience seamless and recognisable – with a self-confessed nod to Apple’s iPad.

When you enter a conference room, WebEx screens greet you, using ultrasound waves to detect your presence, while maintaining your privacy.

When in a video meeting, WebEx is able to intelligently focus the frame on the speaker, and, thanks to its machine learning training, cut out unwanted background noises, such as barking dogs, passing sirens, or the sounds of typing.

All of this is enabled by the same sensors and Nvidia TX2 chips more commonly found in self-driving cars. These allow speaker framing, object classification, and face identification.

Cisco is now developing its products so that, if given permission, they will be able to identify who is in a call, with on-screen labels.

On top of this, Cisco is looking to use a combination of user-device proximity and personal assistant technology to enable a user to simply say “Start my meeting” or “Call John” and the system will work out what meeting that is or which ‘John’ that person means.

What’s next?

In the longer term, Cisco has bold ambitions for its AI capabilities. John Restrick, Cisco’s CTO of Collaboration Architecture, explained how the company is looking to put its existing hardware to use:

“Because we’re providing the systems in meeting rooms, we’re also able to have real-time context about what’s going on in the meeting and the room. We have cameras and microphones and touch panels. This allows the features that we’re working on, that leverage machine learning data, to use real-time information about what’s going on in the room.”

Cisco recently bought a company that it hopes will help enable WebEx to display information about the person in the call in real-time, drawing on information and articles from the internet.

Similarly, sales figures, shipping information, and stock prices could be overlaid when needed, helping those in the meeting to make decisions based on relevant, up-to-date data.

There’s even scope to use AI to monitor a speaker’s emotions, alerting them that they are getting angry, for example, and need to stay calm.

WebEx Assistant

When gauging internal opinion, Cisco found that 60 percent of respondents thought their team would be more productive with a virtual assistant.

Simple tasks such as command and control, and the ability to ask WebEx to remind someone to send a meeting summary have obvious benefits. More ambitiously, real-time data could affect business decisions in a critical way, while saving time pre-meeting. Cisco is also investigating the possibility of using semantic understanding to automatically generate minutes from a meeting.

Elsewhere, Cisco is exploring the value of VR in enabling colleagues around the world to collaborate around 3D content, such as product designs. It’s early days, but John Restrick sees value there:

I think the way we interact around content in meetings will continue to grow, and I think VR and AR are going to allow us to do a lot more interesting things there.

By kitting out a building with sensor-packed screens, facilities departments can also use this data to monitor how rooms are being used and work out how to manage them better.

Internet of Business asked when we might see some of these more advanced AI features ship.

“Face recognition and the WebEx assistant, which we are trialling, are likely to ship within the next 12 months, but that’s not a guarantee,” said Restrick. “When it comes to some of the other features we’ve talked about, the building blocks are in place, but it’s hard to make concrete statements. We’re talking three to five years.”

Cisco VR
VR: The future of digital collaboration at Cisco?

Privacy concerns

With the arrival of greater intelligence around how employees interact in meetings, questions around data and user privacy are bound to arise. In its ongoing customer trials (where users have opted in), Cisco collects facial data to identify individuals, and unlock the features this enables. They also aggregate usage metrics, when given permission to.

Restrick explained:

It’s definitely an important question and one that we spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s a question of getting the right balance between using information to help make the systems better and following guidelines around privacy. And also working with the companies that buy our products to see what they’re comfortable with.

When Internet of Business asked whether data from meetings could be used to assess employees – by looking at their contributions in meetings, for example – Cisco said this wasn’t possible out of the box.

Nonetheless, the company’s open APIs mean that customers could develop their own applications, subject to local privacy laws, but it’s ultimately down to these companies to behave responsibly and for lawmakers to provide for such use cases. Cultivating a developer community around its products gives WebEx the flexibility and openness required to find greater adoption.

Internet of Business says

There will need to be a period of cultural transition in workplaces, if AI is to find a role in our day-to-day tasks. In Cisco’s own internal AI survey, 51 percent of respondents believed that AI would create more time for high-value tasks, 35 percent felt it would aid creativity, while 30 percent said AI could help them get more satisfaction from work.

It must be said that these statistics are far from an overwhelming thumbs-up. And, if a digital collaboration trailblazer like Cisco is still seeing lukewarm opinions in house, it will have its work cut out to convince customers that are ensnared by legacy systems.

Regardless, Cisco’s efforts in video collaboration, and in low-friction digital and AI experiences, are in the right vein: it is less digital disruption than digital augmentation. As jobs become more about what we do, rather than where we do it, Cisco is looking to build the bridges between geographically disparate workforces.