As Monty Python famously said: Always look on the bright side of life. Now that we’re living a time when everyone has been forced to seclude themselves at home for the greater good, a lot of things have changed. One of them is that we no longer have to endure commuting time! Which means that these extra hours can be spent on something else. Not only that, but they can also be spent looking at the same things through a different perspective.
As you all know, at Nmbrs, we have an amazing AI feature that helps our customers with a lot of decisions, cutting their time on manual tasks to half. We call it the Numbee. When I started at Nmbrs 2,5 years ago, all of this was already in place. And, in all honesty, I never asked why. I never tried to understand how this came to be. AI was a very famous topic at the time and I understood the motivations behind starting with an AI feature at Nmbrs. However, how did the Numbee came to be? I never looked into the “why” of it. But, as I came to find out, there is one.
The fear of uncertainty
Lately, I’ve been brainstorming with my colleagues on new topics to address and how to show the innovation that goes inside our company and that we’re so proud of.
When this whole AI subject started to come up everywhere, the possibilities for it were infinite. It could be used to improve the lives of everyone and be applied to every product that we could imagine. However, with every upside, there’s always a downside. A Ying to a Yang if you will. AI also brought a lot of mistrust. With the simplification of processes and time management, a lot of people started to fear for their job. A lot of people believed that if a virtual machine could do their tasks in half the time then their work would be obsolete. This was especially more prominent in jobs that required a lot of manual work, for example, accountancy which is one of the domains our product focuses on.
There was a lot of science projects going on focusing on the effects of AI. These were mainly focused on dystopian scenarios which increased the fear everyone already had.
Having all of this in mind and still wanting to go forward with our AI feature, we had one question in mind: How are we going to develop AI at Nmbrs without increasing the fear?
AI and human connections
Every year, we have a Summer Event where we fly everyone from Nmbrs to a secret location for three days. There, we do a lot of activities together and one of them is a Hackathon. The goal is for people to gather in random teams and develop something that could be improved at Nmbrs. Anything can be done.
In 2017, one of those teams, comprised of 3 of our colleagues, decided to tackle this problem.
"People are actually more afraid to lose their jobs than to die. Hearing about automation was scary for people. They immediately thought they would lose their job. When going into this project, we wanted to make the user feel like they were in control." - Bjorn Bylund
Immediately they knew that our AI feature needed to have a body. They started looking into the concept of uncanny valley. If a robot’s appearance is more human, we tend to empathise with it right up until it’ becomes too similar. Then we regard it with revulsion. However, as the robot's appearance keeps on going farther away from a human being, our emotional response becomes positive once again.
Based on this and other more detailed research, our colleagues knew how they wanted to approach this. They wanted something human-like but not too human. It should make people smile as soon as they saw it and make them want to use our AI feature.
AI gains a body
Big Hero was the inspiration. You remember it, right? It’s an animation movie with a medical robot. Big Hero is its name and it looks like a big Michelin doll but softer. This was a perfect inspiration. It looked friendly and harmless.
For the Numbee, our colleagues immediately knew that it couldn’t be as big as Big Hero. It had to be smaller than a human so our customers would still feel that they were the ones in control. At the end of the day, we all need to feel that we’re in control.
And that was it! They passed the idea to Soraia, our awesome Graphic Designer, and the Numbee was born.
So far, we’re very happy with the results. We use the Numbees for a lot of marketing initiatives and it’s a success. We always receive amazing feedback and a smile as soon as people take a look at it which is exactly what we wanted! Even in our product, we can see our customers are huge fans of it.
The best thing about this is that this came out of the voluntary and proactive effort of a group of colleagues who decided to just go for it.
In a way, these weird times have a silver lining. What is the thing you’re missing by not asking why? Take on this challenge and use the available time to enquire about things you've always taken for granted. Just because we’re stuck at home, doesn’t mean we’re stuck.