Collaboration: What’s Next?

Over my last couple of columns, we have talked about the trend in meetings towards group collaboration, and the equipment and setups that will be necessary to accommodate this trend, as collaboration (and extended collaboration through social media) become the norm in public meetings. This led several of you to ask the question, “what is the next trend that will drive our industry?”

Although I am not sure if the quote was his or not, but I was at a MacWorld some time ago and listened to Steve Jobs remind his audience of developers that the important question was never, “what’s now?” The important question was always “what’s next?” And if we ask ourselves this question in the light of the trend towards collaboration, there are a couple of logical answers to the question and we do indeed see products being developed in advance of the need.

This year, we have obviously seen the development of mainstream collaboration devices, both from traditional AV manufacturers and from larger-market players such as Cisco, Microsoft and Google. All of the latest variety of these collaboration devices utilize a web-based ecosystem to provide collaboration tools. And if you follow the marketing reasons being given to clients for the adoption of collaboration and collaboration tools in their meetings, you will see that the biggest reason is that the use of such collaboration tools brings all the data together from multiple players in the most efficient way, allowing participants to see and manipulate data together, from multiple sources. So now that we have all of the data in one place, brought together in an ad hoc collaborative fashion, what are we going to do with it? What is going to make the end result of collaboration (and by extension, the use of collaboration tools) worth doing?

Artificial intelligence. And, most definitely, cloud-based data analytics systems.

With these new collaboration tools, we are becoming used to using artificial intelligence tools. I now dial most of the phone calls and video conference calls that I make from my conference room by saying, “Hey Siri, call Bob at X company.” And many of the manufacturers with whom I am acquainted are beginning to build in access to their equipment using Siri, Alexa and their ilk. With the advent of published API information for these devices (and the cloud-based backbone that runs them) we will certainly see more equipment controllable by command. On top of that, we will soon see devices that not only “hear” us, but can “see” us. So the developments that will make artificial intelligence part of our meetings on an everyday basis are already occurring. And they’re already being taken a lot farther than simple control of the equipment.

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I recently saw an extremely powerful demonstration of one of the collaboration boards that has recently entered the market, in which three locations of a single company participated in an analysis of their current sales data in various parts of the country. A fourth participant in the conference was an artificial intelligence data analytics service from one of the companies that are marketing such services. OK, OK, in this instance the software was the IBM creation named Watson. The participants (and admittedly, myself) were stunned by some of the instant analysis that was created, merely because the artificial intelligence could compare the data that was being shared with data from many sources across the web. Not all of the cloud-based products comments were particularly intuitive or pertinent, but many were and the experiment was quite a success.

Since that time, I have seen an enormous amount of advertising both on cable television and on the web for the IBM Watson cloud services. So it is obvious what a major marketing effort this is going to be for IBM. And they are far from the only company that will be marketing such services.

So what does this portend for our clients and their meetings? Well, the inclusion of artificial intelligence services in a meeting will be essentially like having to accommodate another distant participant. It is certain that we will need to provide audio outputs to a network-based system so that the cloud-based service can “hear” on stage presenters or members of the audience in a collaborative meeting. It is also probable that we will (sooner rather than later) need to accommodate sending a video signal, possibly from a special motion tracking camera, so that the artificial service could more fully participate with the audience. And, as this type of meeting becomes more prevalent, we will certainly need to provide recording and documentation of the proceedings, both by those participants who are in the room and by distant participants.

This is coming. We can already see that much. But the long-term consequences to adding artificial intelligence to human meetings begs a number of questions. First, will we see “arguments” between multiple artificial intelligence devices? Will Siri deliberately lose Watson’s number? And, lastly, once we have all of the various artificial intelligence devices hooked together so that they can “meet,” will they still invite us to the meetings?