Webex Assistant: Bringing AI to the Workplace

Cisco’s introduction of Webex Assistant poses the question: Is the workplace ready for AI?

Nov 2, 2017 4 minute read

I love my Amazon Alexa. In fact, I have two Echo Dots and many connections to my IoT devices. Personally, I use the Echo to play music (now with Sonos!), get the weather, hear updated news, turn on a timer when my hands are full and control my lights. My kids and even my wife have gotten on board. They use it for some of the same use cases I do but also some others. For instance, my kids now learn all their bad jokes from Alexa.

Initially, my family, including myself, was skeptical of this new hockey puck shaped device sitting in the kitchen, but we’ve grown to like it (not love it yet) and incorporate it into more of our day-to-day activities.

From the kitchen countertop to the office conference room

Although AI services have made inroads into the connected home, none have really done a great job of helping the corporate world.

Yes, Cortana is embedded in our new Windows devices and Siri is in many of our pockets, but for the most part, people aren’t leveraging these tools. In many cases, these tools can’t be leveraged in a workplace setting. Enterprises have strict policies on security and workflows that many of the consumer-based AI applications don’t currently address.

If there’s one area that seems perfect for AI in the corporate world it’s in the meetings segment. How many times have you walked into a conference room and just wanted to tell a bot or assistant to start the meeting?

We all know the current routine: open up your laptop, fire up your calendar, find the dial in number, click on a link, figure out which conference room you’re in, etc. The whole process seems dated and inefficient.

If I can control an entire house with the sound of my voice, shouldn’t I be able to control my weekly team meeting?

The new meeting experience

In 2017, Cisco announced Spark Assistant (which has since been folded into the Webex platform and renamed Webex Assistant). Cisco’s early goal seems pretty simple: deliver a better meeting experience by leveraging AI. The plan is to use a voice command to start the meeting without the painful steps listed above.

You can imagine what’s next — maybe a virtual assistant to take notes, assign action items or auto mute your telecommuting co-worker whose dog barks every time the wind blows.

As part of being an early field trial partner of Cisco’s, we’ve had the chance to access the Webex Assistant service during the past few weeks. Through our Advanced Technology Center, we tested different features of the AI solution to better understand its use cases and capabilities.

We had Webex Assistant place a call and answer some basic questions. Feedback from collaboration architects was the same: What took so long for someone to enable this?

The key to this meeting magic not only lies in the AI software and learning but also in the hardware itself.

Future integrations

The conference room has become the place where teams go to get work done now more than ever thanks to technology. Today’s meeting rooms are outfitted with endpoints that act as a team member, documenting work and sharing out information.

Cisco has done a good job of building out new capable hardware that is engineered to support the future phases of AI. An example is Cisco’s Webex Teams Room 70. The endpoint is part of Cisco’s next-generation room systems that will be able to run Webex Assistant sometime in the near future. This product also supports facial recognition and tracking, giving Webex Assistant a set of eyes.

How quickly we’ll all adjust to AI in the workplace depends on the user experience and need.

Will we as employees find enough value to use these new tools in our day to day? I hope so. And as for my kids, I hope AI finds a way to come up with better jokes.

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