Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are helping to revolutionise varied tasks in all kinds of industries, from production lines in manufacturing to online retail.

And, on the back of technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and chatbots, AI is rapidly expanding to more and more parts of the business world.

Hand in hand with that has been a growing consumer acceptance of AI in their daily lives. There has been an increasingly widespread adoption of all types of AI-enabled devices and apps, from smart devices and drones to self-service kiosks and autonomous vehicles. It’ seems that people are becoming increasingly comfortable with AI and the benefits it can bring – particularly when it comes to customer experience and enhancing lives

“In an era of digital transformation, it is important that businesses put fears of new technologies replacing jobs aside and rather focus on the value, efficiency, increased productivity and general advancements that technology offers to people and the African continent as a whole,” says Sudhir Juggernath, head of Orange Applications for business at Orange Business Services.

“Historically, new technologies have created more new jobs than those that have been lost to automation. A good example of this is the introduction of the Uber app – where technology has allowed thousands of people to become drivers.

In terms of investment for Africa, it is important to embrace new technologies fully, as they have the power to create more opportunities for foreign investment.

More than half of Africa’s population will be below the age of 30 by 2025; and as a society we should seize this opportunity to embrace new technological developments in AI, in order to empower our youth. Africa’s time is now,” he says.

Africa will need to fundamentally shift it’s thinking around AI and will need to plan a vibrant ecosystem where AI flourishes. For instance, China has laid out clear targets for AI development in phases, initially by 2020 and going forward by 2030.


RPA transforming the customer journey

RPA automates a range of business processes usually handled by humans, and its software helps streamline traditional rule-based activities within the customer journey. According to the Deloitte RPA report, 2017, RPA tools are best suited for processes with repeatable, predictable interactions with IT applications.

“It is crucial to note that this means RPA should be implemented in processes based on a used case, and by no means that jobs will be replaced, but rather  streamlined,” explains Juggernath.

Since RPA tools have the power to improve the efficiency of processes and the effectiveness of services without changing existing underlining systems or people

A typical customer journey encompasses all the steps a customer takes when trying to purchase a product or service from a supplier. Customer journeys can be relatively straightforward or complicated – they can be a single interaction between consumer and supplier or a continuously shifting, on-going process.

There are pain points along the way, but RPA can be a great tool in helping to overcome the challenges and deliver great benefits. But what can companies that deploy RPA and AI solutions now expect?

  1. Consistency. Bringing robots into the customer experience picture means companies can deliver a consistent level of service to customers where interactions are handled efficiently, and error-free, at any given time..
  2. A more holistic experience. RPA enables companies to research what customers want to see, hear, think and be told throughout their customer journey. By implementing RPA at key points, companies can deliver a fast and intuitive experience, giving consumers an overall experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  3. Intelligence-as-a-Service. Gartner analyst Tom Austin has predicted that cloud migration and the advent of Intelligence-as-a-Service will make AI available to everyone. Developers have had access to IBM’s Watson APIs since 2013, with 80,000 of them using the APIs to develop what IBM has called “self-service artificial intelligence,” while Microsoft offers over twenty “cognitive services,” such as image recognition (“computer vision”) and speech recognition. Amazon, meanwhile, is developing the AWS catalog with a machine learning predictive analytics service. In May 2016, Google announced it was opening up three APIs – translation, natural language processing and speech-to-text in 80 languages. Lastly, Alibaba Cloud, a China-based business unit of e-commerce giant Alibaba, launched image, video and speech recognition services.


Powering the next level of customer experience

“The benefits of an automated customer experience include consistency, satisfied customers and a better understanding and utilisation of company resources, which could potentially lead to saving the businesses time and money,” adds Juggernath.

For instance, chatbots are central to transforming the customer experience, and more companies are embracing them as they look to address the growing need for an omnichannel customer service approach.

Chatbots possess cognitive technology, which lets them interpret customers’ text or voice inquiries and respond with accurate, automated answers that are designed to quickly resolve routine customer service issues. Oracle research, 2017, revealed that 80% of South African businesses expect to be serving customers to some extent using chatbots by 2020.

Chatbots help companies cut response times while also providing a round-the-clock presence, and ultimately improve the overall customer experience. These virtual assistants now “know” hundreds of thousands of data items about company offerings and in some instances are able to meet 99 percent of customer needs.

They can converse in multiple languages and utilize natural language, making handover between human agents and virtual assistants a seamless exercise. They also gather data that can give valuable insights into customer needs and free up human employees to work on more complicated tasks.


Powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution

RPA is quickly becoming recognised as the next step in automation. Cloud-based RPA uses machine learning to mimic user actions and map enormous quantities of data, learning and adapting as it goes. It will therefore be able to take over a large number of time-consuming, error-prone duties such as purchase order processing, without the need for human touch or explicitly programmed instructions.

Though dependent on the size of the implementation, RPA’s agility also means that its application and deployment can take mere weeks or months instead of years.

Market studies bear out the likely potential for RPA: according to Global Market Insights, RPA market share is forecast to exceed $5 billion by 2024, as organisations seek to enhance their capabilities and performance while also reducing operating costs.

According to Gartner research vice president Annette Zimmerman, in just a few years 25 percent of customer interactions will feature some element of virtual customer experience, or RPA-powered assistant, while Gartner also predicts that one-third of all jobs will be replaced by automation and smart machines by 2025. It is a technology whose time has come as companies continue to drive a better customer experience for all.

“Automation is not about making people redundant, but merely an advancement to the quality of service,” says Juggernath.  African businesses are shifting towards providing tailored services that are improving both customer experience and the experience of the people delivering it. “The introduction of AI will further enable a revolution within Africa’s business landscape, as machines and humans collaborate to deliver superior customer experience and business outcomes,” he concludes.