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There’s no app for that

Aug 14, 2017
A look at the role of technology by Jon Harman, Global Account Manager – CORT Destination Services

I did some fascinating reading in preparation for a recent EuRA session on attention in the digital age. Pausing to consider the all-encompassing advance of technology through the eyes of neuroscientists, social psychologists, journalists, and even a political philosopher was alternatively instructional, inspiring and alarming. The authors had perspectives as varied as their professions, but when it came to our relationship with technology, their work did share at least one theme: proceed with caution.

If the personal computer was the first wave of the digital transformation, the arrival of the internet was the second. This was soon followed by social media, and not long after, the smart phone. Each of these advances has built upon the preceding wave while also transforming our interaction with technology in its own unique way. And now, before we have even had a chance to catch our breath, the next wave is upon us.

As I write this article, Google’s AlphaGo has just defeated China’s Ke Jie, the reigning world champion in the exceedingly challenging board game, ‘Go’. Take a big breath and duck. Here comes AI. Recently. I found myself at an Expat Academy event in London. One of the presenters, Robby Wogan devoted his session to Artificial Intelligence and the role it might play in relocation. Hold on now! Before you run off to open a bottle of wine and call a friend to grumble over apocalyptic visions of robot DSCs conducting home searches, you should know that Robby’s assessment was much more optimistic.

Much of the news about AI focuses on the scary prospect of a massive transformation in the job market and devastating levels of unemployment. Then scary stuff sells newspapers, but it is important to note that there are more optimistic visions of work in the future which are not getting as much air time. In his session, Robby discussed how AI might benefit those of us who work in mobility. Even better, he was able to share a real world example. Robby and the MoveAssist team recently won the 2017 Relocate Award for Technological Innovation in recognition of their work on Maia, the first intelligent chatbot for Global Mobility. Well done, Robby!

Maia’s capabilities point the way to a future where AI improves our ability to do the important work of helping families to navigate the challenges of relocation. Imagine a Mobility Manager conducting a meeting in her office when a question comes up about the number of moves to Brazil the previous year. The manager holds up a finger to pause the conversation, tilts her head toward her laptop and asks, “Maia, how many assignees did we send to Brazil last year?” In a few seconds she has the answer.

Imagine a coordinator at a DSP saying to his computer, “Send the final report and invoice for job 28754 and close the file.” How many files could that coordinator close and invoice in a matter of fifteen minutes? Most of the work we do with keystrokes and mouse clicks will soon be voice activated, providing us with a more direct route to the results we are pursuing.

When it comes to reporting and analysis, useful data buried in our various systems will be a will be a well-phrased question away. What excites me is the possibility (probability more likely) of the computer doing the necessary, freeing us to do the meaningful. What is meaningful work but that which requires us to tap into our uniquely human capabilities of creativity, strategic thinking, goal setting and empathetic connection to others. For most of us, this is the kind of work we wish we could do more of. What prevents us from doing so is the tyranny of the mundane and its demands on our time and attention. What will be possible when we can turn AI loose on those same mundane tasks?

In the world of medicine, AI has the potential to generate faster and more accurate diagnoses. That said, I don’t think any patient would want a robot, no matter how sophisticated, to deliver a diagnosis. Sharing difficult information about a medical condition requires a form of empathetic communication that only humans are suited for. Research shows that patients whose doctors show empathetic concern are more likely to comply with their treatment plan, and therefore experience a more rapid and successful recovery. That same human touch is required to help a family through the emotional challenge of changing friends, school, country and culture.

In her enlightening book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherrie Turkle makes the valid and counterintuitive point that, just because technology can fix something, it doesn’t mean that there was actually a problem in the first place. Telling a patient about a terminal diagnosis is difficult, but it does not mean that we need to develop a robot to do so. No doubt advances in AI will impact the way relocation services are delivered. It is incumbent upon those of us who care about this work to ensure that such developments are truly in the service of an improved experience for assignees and the relocation professionals who assist them. There are some moments, many in fact, when all we need is each other.

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