By Catherine Arnst
Anyone who thinks we are moving towards a paperless society has never seen the desk of a paralegal. It’s not uncommon when researching a complex lawsuit for lawyers and their assistants to plow though millions of pages of documents and old cases in preparation, pushing billable hours and anxiety levels into the stratosphere. There is a solution though – a futuristic desk with a touch screen for a surface that helps the user quickly sort through massive amounts of documents, categorize them, file them, even move them to the side for later reading, without ever touching a page of paper and in a fraction of the time it would take to do the task manually.
Ironically, this cutting-edge document sorting system was developed by Xerox, the company that created the technology that allowed so many documents to be created in the first place. But Xerox has moved well beyond copiers and printers into providing solutions for streamlining business processes. Xerox researchers are applying their expertise in physical and computer sciences to machine vision, data mining, analytics and sophisticated algorithms. They are creating technological mash-ups to help people, companies and governments master today’s information overload.
At a recent Innovation Showcase for journalists and analysts at Xerox Research Centre Europe (XRCE) in Grenoble, the document sorting desk was just one of many transformative technologies that the company’s researchers demonstrated that will make it easier for people around the world to communicate, to travel and to do their jobs. Xerox systems developed at XRCE are helping hospital patients to stay healthy, teachers keep better track of their students’ progress, subway riders find less crowded cars and call center workers solve their customer’s problems faster.  
Since acquiring Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) in 2010 for $6.4 billion, Xerox has been vocal about its plan to transform itself from a company whose name is synonymous with copiers to one that earns more than half its revenues from providing business services. But the transformation started almost 20 years ago, according to Dr. Monica Beltrametti, Xerox Chief Services Research Officer and Vice President and Manager of XRCE. The Grenoble center was established in 1993 “with the goal of helping transform Xerox through innovation into a services business,” she said. “We have been driving text mining and analytics and computer vision for years in certain fields, and increasingly we are aligning research to services in other Xerox centers as well.”
That’s how the sorting desk came about. Beltrametti said XRCE works closely with Xerox customers to learn where their processes are the most problematic, and holds regular “blue sky” meetings to learn what kind of solutions they would want if they could have anything.  Xerox scientists than set out to make those wishes come true. The “smart document” desk is one of those solutions – an elegant-looking table top touch screen that looks like a giant smart phone. Its software allows users to group similar documents, scale them up or down, or move them aside, just like sheets of paper on a real desk. But the smart desk can also learn. By pointing to a few relevant documents, the user teaches the system what information is important. The system then uses this knowledge to sort through and categorize millions of documents.
“We aren’t just trying to push technology to our customers,” said Dr. Florent Peronnin, Principal Scientist and Area Manager of XRCE. “We are their partners, helping them to make better business decisions.”
The smart desk is just one of many examples of cool new Xerox innovation solutions for business processes. There are few fields where smart data management wouldn’t lead to better decisions, and here are some examples:
  • Education: The Xerox Educational Management System allows teachers to spend more time with their students, and less time trying to figure out those messy handwritten assignments. It can read scanned handwritten tests and other papers, checking them against other work by the same student and keeping a record of their progress. The teacher can quickly pull up graphs and other support tools that help them pinpoint a student’s strengths, weaknesses and progress over time.
  • Environment: Xerox has developed machine learning software that analyzes how an enterprise uses its printers on a daily basis. The software then adapts the power settings to conserve power when the printers are least likely to be used, reducing the amount of energy by 10 to 20 percent. Xerox software can also provide feedback to individuals about their printer use. A daisy icon on the corner of their computer screen loses petals whenever they print a document; watching the petals fall reminds them of the environmental impact and preliminary studies have found that it works!
  • Banking: Demand for banking services in India and other developing countries is growing rapidly, but the cost and logistics of setting up a bank branch in a remote location lacking in necessary infrastructure can be prohibitive. Xerox is piloting an innovative banking solution in India that is essentially a “bank in a box,” a kiosk built around a very sophisticated multifunction device that automates banking services like opening an account or applying for a loan. A customer walks up to the kiosk, which can understand several languages, inputs key information and scans in required documents. The system can validate whether handwritten documents are complete and correct, and uses secure technology to overcome slow, error-prone transmissions over satellite networks.
  • Image retrieval: The ubiquity of smart phones and social networks means the world is flooded with digital images. But do you find the right image when you need it? Xerox has developed a software system that can search five million images in less than a second on a desktop computer, identify common themes (covered bridges, say, or kittens) and then select the best photo from a group for archiving or printing.
  • Transportation: Xerox manages the data information needs of some 400 public transit systems around the world. Every time a passenger swipes a fare card, Xerox can gather information on where travelers enter and exit the system. By combining this information with demographics and other transportation-relevant information, Xerox predicts when and where ridership will be heaviest and deploys trains accordingly.
  • Document processing:  Xerox LiveKey, already at work for several customers, helps capture, share and process paper-based information in seconds.  Typical medical claims or billing take an average of 14 days, but with this solution, any industry can slash the steps, speed up the time, and reduce the costs to do everyday business processes.
These and many more technologies are pouring out of Xerox’s five innovation centers at a rapid rate as the company focuses on ways to help enterprises become more efficient and effective. Who knows, perhaps they will even figure out how to get rid of paper. Until then, though, Xerox is creating the tools that help people manage all the information all around us.
Catherine Arnst is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in medicine and science, and was previously Senior Medical writer for BusinessWeek magazine.
Note:  Catherine Arnst filed this content as a paid contributor to Xerox. The content is the author’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of Xerox.