Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

How Algorithms Will Add Super-Intelligence To The Way Your Company Spends Money

As algorithms, virtual assistants, and bots infiltrate conversational interfaces across business applications, in the crosshairs is company spend tracking and control. This is the panacea we’ve all been waiting for to an age-old problem.   

Messaging services like Slack are ground zero for a new generation of integrated bots in the workplace. Most have stopped trying to trick users into thinking they’re chatting with humans while new features like message menus (dropdowns) integrated into the AI-generated text help  users make nuanced decisions.

Driving the conversational UI behind the scenes is an-ever evolving mix of machine learning algorithms for pattern recognition, natural language processing, and other associated technologies. Together, they deliver a contextual experience that helps business users make smarter and faster decisions.

One business workflow rife with inefficiencies and errors is corporate buying and expense tracking. Pointing chatbots, or the next iteration of them that we’ll call AI assistants, in that direction will benefit everyone in the requisition and approval flow, from end users to the head of finance or the treasury boss.

The appeal of AI could be even greater for smaller businesses since most lack formal spend management policies, but still need to see who charged what and when on the company credit card. AI assistants enabled by emerging algorithms can arm every purchase decision with intelligence, in effect, augmenting human judgement every step of the way.

AI assistants can add intelligence to everyday tasks

In the realm known as transactional procurement and travel and expense (T&E), solutions with AI assistants could help with general questions, such as clarifying budget status or a spend limit. A user would be able to simply ask the robot a question within the same messaging interface where they chat with colleagues and then get an instant response.

For payments, an AI assistant could learn how you buy and then make recommendations based on context, supplier or product data, budget levels, working capital, and other factors one might overlook or simply not be privy to when initiating an everyday purchase for work.

In another scenario, a user could request an approval for a purchase, but before doing so, summon an AI assistant to verify if a similar request was made by a coworker to avoid a duplicate purchase. That way the user wouldn’t have to waste time and go digging for that info herself.

Finally, AI assistants can facilitate the buying process by generating a payment method such as a virtual credit card after the transaction gets approval from a manager on behalf of the requestor. Upon approval, a user would receive an encrypted virtual card with a spend limit to use as payment against a corporate account, massively simplifying what is typically an arduous back-and-forth process.

The AI opportunity goes well beyond transactions

In time, AI will evolve to allow organizations to make strategic buying decisions and respond to changing business conditions and market variability instantly. To get there, it will first remove the bottlenecks of repetitious decisions that occupy our time, like those mentioned earlier in this article. Then, they could be programmed to help make ever more strategic decisions.

In the sphere of sourcing and procurement, that could mean super-intelligent agents sourcing the highest quality rubber from a stable region, determining which short-listed supplier is most likely to honor their contract, forecasting supply chain disruptions and make recommendations weeks in advance, and so on.

Think that level of knowledge work is impossible for algorithms? Think again. Researchers at Google Brain have already developed software that designs machine-learning software with better results compared to machine-learning software designed by the boffins themselves!

We are well on our way to developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that will be able to handle increasingly complex tasks. In his best-selling book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari, drives the point home: “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.”

With that thought, we can return to our original premise and have little doubt that the rise of AI will mean all of a business’s spending will get smarter. AI expert Stuart Russell puts AI next to the discovery of fire in terms of impact on civilization. If AI will change the world, then it certainly will change business commerce.

Christopher Jablonski is Director of Content & Communications at Tradeshift, a cloud-based business commerce platform connecting buyers and suppliers.

Are You A Procurement Starter Or A Finisher?

Are you a starter or a finisher? According to IBM’s Barry Ward, you’d better be both! Barry discusses the key skills most critical to procurement in the coming years.

Barry Ward, Procurement Brand Manager, Global Business Services at IBM is a keynote speaker at Big Ideas Summit 2017.  He’ll be explaining the big ideas behind Watson and the opportunities that cognitive tech presents to procurement. When we spoke to Barry ahead of the event he was keen to remind us that, despite rapid tech developments, traditional procurement skills are far from being made redundant.

How do you stay productive and current in a world of fast-paced innovation?

  • Collaborating with colleagues
  • Networking with others – using social media and other channels
  • Building and nurturing an ecosystem of organisations that are leading or developing solutions that may have or will have an impact in your function

What key skills are critical for procurement in the next 5 years?

We will always need traditional procurement skills such as the ability to be a strong negotiator, to communicate well internally and externally, to be a starter and a finisher. But, on top of this I think the importance of an open mind and curiosity in terms of the role that technology can play in the future is going to be more important than ever.

There will be an increasing need for project management skills, change management, relationship management skills. This is on top of the usual and still critical traditional procurement skills such as category expertise or negotiation skills. I can also say that there is a growing importance in soft skills: communication, teamwork and collaboration and problem solving.

How has technology, the Internet of Things and e-Procurement affected IBM?

Technology has placed a key role in IBM’s transformation over the past 20 years or so. Its importance is perhaps more critical in the the current phase of our procurement transformation. Understanding how digital technology can transform the supply chain and our source to pay activities is critical in terms both driving our efficiency and effectiveness but also to showcase how procurement can drive value throughout our organisation.

This positions Procurement in a much more strategic role than ever before. Procurement data is much more visible than ever before.  Insights through combining unstructured and structured information augment our knowledge, with alerts being posted to mobile devices instantaneously means that buyers can have much better assurance of supply continuity, of being able to understand price opportunities and to focus their time and energies on higher value activities than ever before. Lower value work will become automated or systems-driven. This is all good news for Procurement.

One clear impact of this transformation is that our key stakeholders now have very high expectations of high performance from Procurement personnel, perhaps more so than ever before, but the rewards are clearly evident in terms of the value that individuals can bring as well as the procurement organisation as a whole.

How valuable have mentors been in your career?

Mentoring is a highly personal thing. Some people need to have guidance and direction particularly in an organisation that may be widely spread and fast-moving, and if you are looking to move around different functions. Similarly for those who are in a smaller organization, mentors can bring an external, broader perspective.

Others are confident of their own abilities in charting a course for their own development and progression. I have had mentors in the past, particularly when I was in the early stages of my career. The more confident you are of your attributes and ambitions the less I have found that I needed mentoring. I spend time mentoring others mainly from within IBM and mainly from other geographies.

How did you first become interested in procurement?

I didn’t know very much about Procurement in my time as an undergraduate. It was not a profession that had much coverage when I was at University, unlike Finance or Engineering.

My first job as a business graduate was as a Purchasing Analyst running Bill of Material queries in a MRP system for a large manufacturer. This brought me into contact with many parts of the organisation including procurement. The procurement manager at the time was quite an intellectual and gave me a broad view of the role that procurement can play in an organisation.

Clearly he influenced me as I have spent my subsequent career in procurement and supply chain roles!

How will cognitive technology impact procurement professionals?

Cognitive technology will transform the role of the procurement professional and the impact that he or she can make for their organisation. It will be able to remove some of the more prosaic parts of the procurement role, such as data gathering and analysis, together with augmenting a buyer’s knowledge thus enabling them to spend more time on higher value tasks and ultimately make better decisions and be more effective.

Procurement professionals will need to understand how cognitive technology works – so they can be alert to potential mistakes that can happen from cognitive solutions, so that data input from these solutions is relevant and accurate.  It will eventually help, and force, them with their career progression as well as developing their expertise.

Join the conversation and register as a digital delegate for Big Ideas 2017

Cognitive Technology Is A Bicycle Built For Two

By 2020, every important decision will be made with the assistance of cognitive technology but that doesn’t mean the  procurement function will be replaced altogether. instead, Man and Machine will work in tandem. 

Watch our free webinar, “Man and Machine: Redefining Procurement’s Role in the Digital Age”, here.

When someone like Ginni Rometty, the current CEO at IBM, says this, it’s worth paying close attention. As we have explored in the past, artificial intelligence and infinite data means endless opportunities, both personally and professionally.

Rometty also speaks from a position of authority and experience. IBM’s Cognitive Technology solution, Watson,  is already transforming fields like health care, finance, entertainment and retail.

The system has the potential to understand, learn and think through any procurement issue or question presented, offering detailed answers, analysis, or solutions, just as human can. But the difference is that Watson can do this on a scale and speed that outstrips the human brain.

Man and Machine – What’s Procurement’s Role?

This presents great opportunities for procurement, helping make faster, more informed decisions, with deeper insight and greater certainty.

However, as with any new technology, opportunities also come with uncertainty and challenges. Does procurement truly have the agility, and desire, to embrace this new technology and remain relevant?

And what is the role left for procurement professionals, when the smartest guy in the room is Watson?

Procurious teamed up with experts in the cognitive field to help procurement professionals get to grips with this tricky topic. Joining us for the webinar were:

  • Nathalie Fekete – Worldwide Cognitive Procurement Subject Matter Expert at IBM
  • Manoj Saxena – Founding General Partner at The Entrepreneur’s Fund
  • Pascal d’Arc – General Manager at Cognitive Scale

Cognitive – Big Ideas and Significant Shifts

“This is one of the most significant shifts in human history.”

So what’s the Big Idea behind Watson? Well you may not be aware of it, but Watson has probably already touched your life, and the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

According to Nathalie Fekete the core concept driving Watson is its ability to interpret vast quantities of data, and think and reason like a human being. The machine is built to mirror the same cognitive learning process that humans have, even following the same “Observe; Interpret; Evaluate; Decide” process we use for decision making.

And it’s this adaptive nature, including the ability to augment human intelligence that makes Cognitive so important. Manoj Saxena believes that it’s the fourth biggest shift in human history, behind only the discovery of alphabets, and the inventions of the printing press and the Internet.

The Sky’s The Limit

“A little bit of AI can go a long way.”

According to Saxena, not only is AI already all around us, but we’ve also only just scratched the surface. What’s different now, and will be huge over the next 3-5 years, is the impact of AI on the enterprise.

AI and cognitive systems have already produced successful results in leading global companies across the financial services, retail, and healthcare sectors. And this innovation will only develop in years to come as we progress to super-intelligent computers.

However, Saxena was also quick to point out that the hype surrounding the topic might be unhelpful. To him, it’s about separating super-intelligence in computing from awareness and consciousness.

Hollywood and the media might have their own thoughts on this, but humans are yet to fully understand awareness and consciousness in themselves, let alone give this power to computers.

We also need to better understand the key terminology across this topic too. Saxena helpfully laid it out like this:

  • AI is the mega-term. It’s the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, particularly intelligent computer programmes.
  • Machine Learning is a sub-set of AI. This is a science involving the development of self-learning algorithms where the system learns from experience.
  • Cognitive systems are next-generation IT systems that emulate human cognitive functions and software. Cognitive systems are essentially the practical and applied applications of machine learning and AI into specific industries and business processes.

Got it now? Now you’re in a better position to understand the impact on procurement.

Cognitive and Procurement – Impact and Benefits

“Putting the person front and centre of how we apply this new technology.”

Cognitive systems, as well as AI, stand to overturn the norms for procurement, bringing a huge number of potential benefits. Nathalie Fekete stated that one of the primary benefits relates to the analysis of data.

Using vast amounts of structured and unstructured data will help procurement with supplier evaluation, risk management, and benchmarking. This data, and the systems, will also provide a new gateway for innovation. Procurement will be able to find new routes and ideas for savings and opportunities, using cognitive technology.

Pascal d’Arc built on these themes too, highlighting the growing excitement in procurement around cognitive technologies. d’Arc talked about three key themes developing in this area:

  1. Putting the person at the centre of the technology
  2. Delivering a more personalised experience of how employees interact with or run procurement
  3. How cognitive technology is delivering adaptive and agile processes, as well as reducing the time taken for traditional tasks.

Man and Machine in Tandem

“Start now, because it’s happening very quickly.”

Are you worried you might be replaced by a computer? You shouldn’t be. Cognitive technology can eliminate, automate, reduce and empower jobs roles, says Nathalie Fekete. But the good news is that what it’s removing is the hazardous, dangerous, repetitive and manually intensive parts of the role.

Within procurement, this means that time can be saved on some tasks, and better spent elsewhere. The key for procurement professionals is to ensure that they have the right skills to do the new role. And to understand this and start up-skilling now.

Fekete and Pascal d’Arc expanded on this, highlighting key skill areas future professionals will need:

  • Traditional procurement skills such as negotiation, Category Management and Supplier Relationship Management
  • Collaborative working
  • Project Management and Change Management

Learn More

What we’ve outlined above is just a small fraction of the great knowledge shared in the webinar. To access the full discussion, as well as other key insights from our experts, you can register here.

And the learning doesn’t stop there. If you have any questions, please let us know below, and we’ll make sure it gets passed along to the experts.

Watch the full webinar here. 

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley

Why are we happy to watch movies with AI and robots, but feel disturbed by near-identical humanoid robots in real-life? Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.

Uncanny Valley

Considering the robot theme of my last two posts, I was somewhat pleased last week to have picked up a radio show from the BBC in their series ‘The Why Factor’ called “Fear of Robots” in which they make some of the same points concerning our assumptions that robots will always be benign.

The presenter found himself somewhat disquieted by a robotic seal pup, and completely disturbed by an almost-human android.

He had, so the saying goes, entered the uncanny valley. Although we humans react (and sometimes over-react) very positively to human-like features – cartoon characters, dolls and the like – we have a generally very bad response to simulations which are very, very nearly, but not completely, life-identical.

The Uncanny Valley

Despite the extraordinary advances in CGI, many filmgoers find greater satisfaction and easier suspension of disbelief in watching old-style animation, than movies which seek to recreate the real world.

The characters just don’t move right, or look right, or something.  The difference is so slight and subtle, yet rings huge alarm bells in our heads.

One contributor to the radio show described very-near-human robots as giving us the same heebie-jeebies as walking corpses might. After all, they are cold, their skin tone is wrong, they don’t move naturally. Of course they freak us out.

Away from the uncanny valley, though, we love the broader approximations to human behaviour.  As we turn away in discomfort from the close-to-real, we delight in the more grotesque caricature.

It seems we’re more comfortable with the messy, chaotic, imperfect real-world, than a more sterile near-perfection.  Perhaps that speaks to a deep aspect of human nature, something that we software developers might do well to pay heed to.

Emotional Reactions

There are clear cases of this emotional reaction to human-like behaviour in the use of software, especially at work.

The response that many, if not all of us, had to that [expletive deleted] animated paper clip when it popped up and said, “I see you’re trying to write a letter, would you like some help with that?” was no different to the reaction we’d have to the co-worker who would keep dropping by to say, “You don’t want to do it like that. Do you?”.

Approximating the real world, including human behaviour, when developing the software that we need to interact with, is thus a complex matter.

Get it right and the user experience is one of delight and sustained engagement. But go too far and users are actively put-off by the feeling that the software itself is somehow working against us.

At GEP we’ve been working on user experience technology that puts the human at the heart of process.  We are, of course, some way from software that has a human personality. And although the possibilities are immense, they are not without risk.

Imagine sitting down at your desk each day to find that overnight everything has been rearranged to make it slightly more convenient for you.  Perhaps so you don’t have to reach so far for the telephone, or your chair is aligned more ergonomically to the monitor.

Such things could dramatically improve our day…or screw it up entirely, leaving us feeling irritated or even violated.  As creatures of habit we naturally reach for the place where the telephone is, which is not always ideal.  It just is.

A Real-Life, Virtual Assistant

But there is another, more subtle, set of possibilities that we might permit to assist us without, to be frank, freaking us out.

You might imagine an assistant who begins by learning how you work, where the shortcuts are that you naturally take, and how other might be offered to speed things along.   Then when the time is right, you assistant might suggest you have some choices, all in good time, no rush.  The assistant makes notes of how they can improve your life and recommends rather than enforces changes.

In time you might start noticing that there is less clutter around and you’re completing tasks faster without having been trained, directed or instructed.  User consent to small changes that help keep things tidy could be far more effective than wholesale re-ordering of menus and icons.

It’s something we have to keep in mind when developing software that should be designed to help you work.  There is a fine but definite line between being helpful and just downright irritating.

It reminds me of the wonderful scene in Father Ted where a sales assistant tries to tempt Mrs. Doyle with an automatic tea-maker.   “It will take the misery out of making tea.”  Her response?  “Maybe I like the misery!”

Is Any Profession Safe From AI Disruption?

Would you trust an “artificially intelligent colleague” to solve your legal disputes? It may be closer than you think as AI and cognitive technology advances prove no industry is safe from disruption.

AI

At the end of last week, it was announced that a major US law firm, Baker & Hostetler, had hired Ross to run its bankruptcy practice. Not major news you might think, until you realise that ROSS is the world’s first “artificially intelligent attorney”.

Built upon the same concept as IBM’s Watson, and using the same cognitive technology, ROSS is another example of a major technological disruptor, and proof that no profession is safe from the advance of AI.

Setting a Precedent

In many ways, ROSS is very similar to the original Watson technology. The AI can read and understand language, generate hypotheses for questions it is asked, and can back up these hypotheses with research and citations from legal literature and cases.

The success of ROSS is centred on how it learns. As the AI interacts more with its human colleagues, it learns from its experience, getting more intelligent and faster at problem solving with each task it does.

It can also perform these tasks faster than human counterparts, examining thousands of documents in a fraction of the time it would take a person to do. It is also able to filter these results, and only presents the most relevant cases and citations from the data available.

Although Baker & Hostetler are the first to publicly announce signing up ROSS, Andrew Arruda, CEO and co-founder of ROSS Intelligence, has confirmed that a number of other law firms have already signed licences to use ROSS too.

Big Data for Recruitment

Big Data, AI and cognitive technologies all go hand in hand, with many seeing Big Data as a key driver behind the development and advancement of the technologies. At the Big Ideas Summit, Barry Ward, Procurement Brand Manager at IBM, stated that 80 per cent of the data available to us is unstructured.

Unstructured data is difficult for humans to sift through, and find relevant information with any speed. Cognitive technologies, such as IBM Watson and ROSS, have been designed specifically to work with this unstructured data. While the potential applications for procurement from Big Data have been spoken about extensively, it’s to the recruitment industry that we look now.

A recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 In Business programme highlighted the work of Bill Nowacki, MD of Decision Science at KPMG. Nowacki works with Big Data, trying to improve the way organisations work, by analysing the data available to them.

One facet of this is uncovering the so-called “data trail” left by individuals when they use electronic devices, search on the Internet, and post on social media. All this data can be pulled together to generate a picture of the individual in question.

In a corporate setting, it can show how people are performing. There are further applications in the recruitment process too. Potential candidates can be identified by on comparing them with high performers already in the organisation, as well as assessing the candidates for cultural fit.

The benefit of using Big Data and cognitive technologies in recruitment is the lack of bias in the process. Whereas human interactions can fall victim to inbuilt bias, the technology has no such issues.

And as the technologies learn from experience, it’s possible that the recruitment process may benefit from greater understanding of personality traits, individuals’ values and norms, and create a fairer process all round.

Events in Brief

A couple of final pieces of news from Procurious this week include what you’ll be seeing on the site soon. We’re attending Coupa Inspire and ISM2016 and we’ll be bringing all the major headlines and information from these great events in the coming weeks.

Last week was Coupa Inspire, where the business announced that it had connected its 2 millionth business on its Open Business Network, plus Sir Richard Branson, and his son Sam, gave a keynote address on a variety of topics including the importance of philanthropy, leadership and inspiring others. Plus Sir Richard also talked about his plans to build Virgin Hotels in space!

Stay tuned for more on these topics soon!

What do you think of the latest AI developments? Do we have anything to worry about from AI in the future, or is it just the stuff of science fiction? Let us know your thoughts.

Each week we sniff out the top procurement and supply chain headlines for you to enjoy…

Concerns over US Retail Sector Health

  • Macy’s, the largest department store chain in the US, has increased fears over the health of the US retail sector with its poor Quarter 1 results.
  • The company announced its worst quarterly sales since 2009, with sales falling 5.6 per cent, for a fifth consecutive quarterly decline.
  • A move away from traditional stores to online shopping and fast fashion has been blamed for the struggles of many companies in the retail sector.
  • With consumer demand not expected to increase for department stores, Macy’s is now intensifying its cost cutting efforts.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

Switzerland Tops Global Supply Chain Index

  • Switzerland has taken top spot in the 2016 FM Global Resilience Index, unseating 2015 leader Norway.
  • The index ranks the supply chain resilience of 130 countries according to nine drivers that affect business vulnerability.
  • Falling oil prices have been blamed for the falling ranking of Norway and a number of other countries, including Kuwait and Venezuela.
  • Terrorism has also been a factor in the 2016 rankings, with Belgium, Pakistan and Nigeria all dropping down the list.

Read more at Supply Management

Release 15 Announced at Coupa Inspire

  • Release 15 is Coupa’s second major release of the year, delivering a number of enhancements across the platform.
  • Hyperlocalised Languages addresses local language requirements across 100 countries, along with terminology unique to individual businesses, by allowing customers to modify Coupa’s 20+ languages for their own purposes.
  • Updated Sourcing Recommendations Engine enables savings initiatives to now be recommended based on predicted trends in expenses spend.
  • The New Supplier Risk Recommendations Engine monitors supplier data and reports on risk triggers including expiring certificates and outdated information.
Read more at Coupa