Technology and Artificial Intelligence in the Service of Productivity

Ever since humans invented the first tool, we have continually sought to propel technology forward to aid us with our basic needs and daily doings, to get things done faster, to facilitate communications, to allow us and goods to get from one place to the other, and countless other calculations, tasks, and objectives. 

In the context of work, we largely employ technology to help businesses and organizations get the most out of their limited resources, especially their employees – in other words, to increase productivity.  Amongst many others, we use communication technologies for better collaboration and to enable flexible work models; we employ productivity and workflow applications to stay organized and work more efficiently; we integrate automation and robotics to do monotonous, manual tasks faster while drastically reducing the margin of error; we use AI with all of these and more, to further enhance productivity, with greater precision, and in ways, we never thought of. We do all this, of course, with the ultimate goal of reducing costs and growing profit.

In this article we’ll explore exactly how technology is helping to boost productivity, some of the challenges the ubiquitous use of technology has created, quite counterintuitively, and the way AI is changing the technology-productivity equation, across the board and specifically in the world of customs.

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How technology helps the wheels of work spin

From the spoon to the wheel, to the printing press, the light bulb, the chip, and the computer, to the internet, email, and mobile, and on to robots, nanotechnology, and quantum computing. Whether we realize it or not, technology is what makes the world tick, and nowhere more so than in business and work. 

Indeed, technology has permeated every corner, nook, and cranny of business, boosting productivity throughout (for the most part), but if we take a 30,000 ft. view, we see a few very broad categories:

Communications:  Unless you work in a silo, being able to communicate thoughts, ideas, news, and last-minute changes with others in your team or organization, is a fundamental driver of productivity. It is the criticality of communications that has given rise, directly or indirectly, to email, instant messaging, smartphones, and online video conferencing. We don’t need to look back too far, to the age of faxes and landlines, to understand how advances in communications technology have impacted productivity…

Collaboration: The offspring of communications (there’s no collaboration without communications), here technology, quite simply, makes it easier to connect and work together with others. Collaboration solutions today, such as Google’s suite of cloud apps (calendar, Google docs, etc.), CRM systems such as Saesforce.com, and more, streamline discussions, planning, execution, and monitoring, all under a single umbrella, allowing teams to focus on their joint work, not the mechanics of it.

Enabling remote and hybrid work models: Brought to the limelight by COVID 19, remote and hybrid work is gradually becoming the norm or at least an acceptable model for a great many employers. The aforementioned communications and collaboration technologies, plus more comprehensive productivity solutions, such as Slack, help remote teams and organizations function and produce, possibly better than their office-based colleagues. Add to that the variety of HR and hiring systems that help manage and maintain these dispersed teams and allow HR professionals to search much larger haystacks for the perfect candidates.

Task automation: Originating with machines and crude robots that perform manual, repetitive work instead of machinists and assembly workers, today a variety of applications perform an assortment of mundane office tasks that nobody wants to do, e.g., sending out meeting reminders or providing regular status updates, freeing up those responsible for more important and productive work.   

Process and workflow improvement and customization: Often combining technologies from all of the above, these applications and systems allow managers and supervisors to set up and enforce well-thought-out processes and workflows, and cross-organizational teams to follow and implement these flows with ease. This not only speeds things up and creates substantial efficiencies but helps to break down silos and coalesce teams and entire companies. 

Engaging employees: This might not be the first thing you think about when you think of productivity, but it’s quite simple – engaged employees are more productive. In fact, according to a 2013 Gallup Poll, they are 21% more productive. Thus, technologies that help measure and analyze employee engagement (thereby helping managers identify and deal with issues), or that promote engagement, e.g., company portals and e-learning applications, subsequently help increase productivity. 

Overload and Inequality – The Technology-Productivity Paradox

While the picture painted above is rosy, the world is coming to the consequential realization that technology is a double, if not a triple or quadruple-edged sword. Specifically, at the same time, those technological innovations continue to spur productivity to new heights, they are also bringing about new forces that are countering widespread productivity increases, which, in turn, have actually slowed economic growth over the past decade (amongst other reasons).

Information overload: At the same time that technology has allowed us to do more with greater accuracy, it also generates incalculable quantities of data that are difficult to interpret and use. An example that’s familiar to us in customs, is HS codes. Numerous technologies have allowed customs officials to define HS codes more narrowly, at the regional and country levels. While this supposedly allows customs authorities to increase customs revenues, HS code classification has become unwieldy, slowing down customs clearance processes and causing importers/exporters and brokers to make incorrect classifications.

Disparate productivity gains: As with most things in life, those with more, benefit more. Bigger, wealthier firms, organizations, and governments, those with access to the latest and greatest technologies, have seen tremendous productivity gains, allowing them to strengthen their market or geopolitical position. However, as is usually the case, this comes at the expense of smaller players – be they businesses or nation-states, that can’t afford or don’t have the expertise to benefit from these technologies.

AI – Making technology productive once more

As we’re right in the middle of the AI revolution-evolution, it’s hard to see where we’ll end up, but signals are strong that AI has the capacity to overcome the overload and inequality issues described above, and we’re not the only one’s who think so.

In a Forbes’ article from March 20, 2020, titled “AI’s Effect on Productivity, Now and in the Future”, Forbes Technology Council member, Sébastien Ricard brings two different estimates for how much AI will add to the world economy by 2030: PwC forecasts the number at $16 trillion, while McKinsey puts it at “only” $13 trillion.

Whomever you choose to listen to, the conclusion is obvious – AI will be a major driver of productivity and economic growth for the foreseeable future. The reasons are, in essence, extensions of the reasons we listed at the start of this article, coupled with the fact that AI deals with overload head-on and helps reduce inequality, e.g.:

  • Further automation: AI allows for automation of a greater number of monotonous tasks, with much greater accuracy.
  • Greater employee engagement: Through real-time analysis of mounds of employee-related data, AI can identify issues and suggest solutions that human HR teams would probably never uncover or think of.
  • Demand forecasting: This time, by incorporating big data analysis with tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of environmental variables, AI can help even the smallest of organizations to accurately predict demand and focus their resources to produce what is needed, when its needed.
  • Manufacturing process optimization: While robots have been in use in manufacturing for some time, we are now seeing the emergence of machines powered by AI engines, that can learn where to improve, and actual effect changes, on their own, e.g., identifying optimal production temperatures at different times of day, and appropriately adjusting coolant liquid quantities.
  • Etc., etc. etc.

AI, AiDock, productivity, and customs

As the list of the ways in which AI enhances productivity is endless, we’ll now turn our attention to customs, and more pointedly, to the way in which AiDock is increasing productivity, efficiency. and accuracy.

Actually, we cover this in detail in a previous article, “Intelligent Hacks and Tips for Streamlining Customs declarations”, so here are the pertinent points:

Get more paperwork done, quickly and accurately: Occasionally aided by a human clerk, AIDock’s Bailey data entry assistant can process substantially more paperwork with greater precision than the clerk could on his or her own. 

Classify more products in a fraction of the time with a very low error margin: Cody, AiDock’s HS classification assistant can classify thousands, sometimes millions of products every second with 95%-99% accuracy, helping to avoid delays and fines, and allowing brokers and importers to process more shipments in any given timeframe.

Collaborate with your teams – human and virtual: With AiDock’s Web Platform, you can interact with your virtual assistants, and with their aid, or directly, to share information and results with human coworkers, wherever they may be.

A productive conclusion

As with life on earth in general, artificial intelligence will be a major force in how and how well we work. 

From AIs that work with you to schedule a meeting or fill out a form, to warehouses filled with thousands of bots to manage inventory and delivery, AI will unlock millions of hours a week from human workforces, leading to unfathomable productivity gains and a very different world of work for us all.

Customs, E-commerce, Parcel, Logistics, international trade, customs broker, customs brokerage

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