As businesses clamor for workplace AI, tech companies are rushing to provide it

Earlier this year, Mark Austin, vice president of data science at AT&T, noticed that some of the company’s developers had started using the ChatGPT chatbot. When developers got stuck, they asked ChatGPT to explain, fix or improve their code.

It seemed like a game changer, Mr. Austin said. But since ChatGPT is a publicly available tool, he wondered if it was safe for businesses to use.

So in January, AT&T tried Azure OpenAI Services, a product from Microsoft that lets businesses build their own AI-powered chatbots. AT&T used it to create a proprietary AI assistant, Ask AT&T, that helps its developers automate their coding process. AT&T’s customer service representatives also started using the chatbot to summarize their calls, among other tasks.

“Once they realize what it can do, they love it,” Mr. Austin said. Forms that once took hours to complete take just two minutes with Ask AT&T, so employees can focus on more complex tasks, and developers who used the chatbot increased their productivity by 20 to 50 percent.

AT&T is one of many businesses interested in finding ways to harness the power of artificial intelligence, the technology that powers chatbots and has excited Silicon Valley in recent months. Generative AI can generate its own text, photos and video in response to stimuli, helping to automate tasks like taking meeting minutes and reducing paperwork.

To meet this new demand, tech companies have raced to introduce products for businesses that incorporate AI in the past three months, with Amazon, Box and Cisco unveiling plans for AI-powered products that generate code, analyze documents and summarize meetings. Salesforce recently unveiled generative AI products used in sales, marketing and its Slack messaging service, while Oracle announced a new AI feature for human resources teams.

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These companies are investing heavily in AI development. In May, Oracle and Salesforce Ventures, the venture capital arm of Salesforce, invested in Toronto start-up Cohere. Oracle also resells Coher’s technology.

“I think this is a complete breakthrough in enterprise software,” Box’s chief executive Aaron Levy said of generative AI, “this incredibly exciting opportunity where, for the first time, you can really start to understand what’s inside your data in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

Many of these tech companies are following Microsoft’s $13 billion investment in OpenAI, the maker of ChatGBT. In January, Microsoft made the Azure OpenAI service available to customers, who can then access OpenAI’s technology to build their own versions of ChatGPT. As of May, the service had 4,500 customers, Microsoft corporate vice president John Montgomery said.

For the most part, tech companies are now releasing four types of generative AI products for businesses: features and services that generate code for software engineers, create new content such as sales emails and product descriptions for marketing teams, and search company data for employee feedback. Summarize questions, and meeting notes and long documents.

“It’s going to be a tool that people use to do what they’re already doing,” said Bern Elliott, vice president and analyst at IT research and consulting firm Gartner.

But using generative AI in the workplace carries risks. Chatbots can generate false and misleading information, provide inappropriate responses, and leak data. AI is often uncontrollable.

In response to these issues, tech companies have taken some steps. To prevent data leaks and improve security, some have developed AI products so they don’t hold onto customer data.

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When Salesforce launched AI Cloud last month, a service with nine AI-powered products for businesses, the company included a “trust layer” to help hide sensitive corporate information to prevent leaks. To retrain the basic AI model.

Similarly, Oracle has said that customer data is kept in a secure environment while it trains its AI model and that the information cannot be viewed.

Salesforce offers AI Cloud starting at $360,000 annually, with cost increasing depending on usage volume. Microsoft charges for the Azure OpenAI service based on the version of OpenAI technology the customer chooses and the volume of use.

For now, generative AI is mainly used in workplace environments with low risks — rather than highly regulated industries — with humans, said Beena Ammanath, managing director of the Deloitte AI Institute, a research center at the consultancy. A recent Gartner survey of 43 companies found that more than half of respondents did not have an internal policy on AI.

“It’s not just about using these new tools efficiently, it’s also about preparing your workforce for the new types of jobs that are emerging,” said Ms. Ammanath. “New skills will be required.”

Panasonic Connect, part of Japanese electronics giant Panasonic, began building its own chatbot in February using Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI service. Today, its employees ask the chatbot 5,000 questions a day, from drafting emails to writing code.

Although Panasonic Connect expects its engineers to be the main users of the chatbot, Juda said, other departments such as legal, accounting and quality assurance also help to condense legal documents, come up with solutions to improve product quality and perform other tasks. Reynolds, head of marketing and communications for Panasonic Connect.

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“Everybody started using it, and we didn’t even expect it,” he said. “So people are really taking advantage of that.”

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