COVID-19 has impacted the world of work more than any other event in recent history. While new technologies such as AI were increasingly being adopted pre-pandemic, the past year has only accelerated his change. As a result of rapid digitalisation, 114 million people have lost their jobs worldwide.
This has highlighted a key issue within the future of work. A recent PWC report revealed that 39% of workers think their job is likely to be obsolete within five years, while 6 in 10 fear automation is a threat to their jobs. But perhaps we need to approach this from another angle. Instead of seeing AI as a threat, let’s exploring how it can augment our human input in the future.
The Future of Work is Now
The WEF’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 found that automation, along with the recession brought on by Covid-19, created a ‘double disruption’ scenario for workers. It cost employees $3.7 trillion worldwide, while working hours fell by almost 9% in the final three months of last year compared to the same period in 2019. The statistics are sobering, but this disruption has forced digital transformation, leading to rapid advancements within many organisations.
This transformation is not limited to companies and organisations. Forty percent of workers enhanced their digital skills during the pandemic. Over three quarters – 77% - are prepared to upskill or reskill. So, while there remains fear that robots are going to ‘take over’, there is also a shift in how we approach work.
After all, we already rely on - and to some extent ‘obey’ – machines in our daily lives. Humans used to do the job that traffic lights do. These days, we can follow instructions from this machine without a second thought. Drivers for Uber don’t take direction from a person -- AI software allocates those jobs.
Automation is of course not a new phenomenon. Automated tools to make processes more efficient have increasingly penetrated people’s working lives ever since the first Ford assembly lines. And digitalization of the workplace started last century in the 80’s and 90’s with the introduction of mainframes and computers. AI is however more than just another digital tool. Its advent represents the next step in this ongoing development.
Within the next four years, humans and machines are predicted to spend a growing amount of time sharing workplace tasks. Harnessing new technologies such as AI has the potential to enrich our working lives. The question is, how can we collaborate with AI, rather than compete with it?
Pros of AI in the Workplace
Enhanced Efficiency: Data is highly valued in today’s fast-paced world of work. It is necessary to be able to process this data rapidly with accuracy to get real-time results. One example: Deep Mind’s AI. It can diagnose sight-threatening eye conditions in seconds and examine thousands of scans, freeing up time usually spent by doctors. Machines can take care of time consuming or mundane work, so people can focus on more complex tasks, according to research from The University of Zurich.
Enhanced Traceability: With AI, each decision can be logged and inspected. This is a big pro for using AI in the workplace because it can make processes more transparent, or at least verifiable. It enables workers to go back and inspect decisions and processes. It also means that AI can generate data and insights to learn and discover new things from that data.
Eliminating human error: Even the most diligent and accurate people make mistakes. Artificially intelligent machines don’t get tired or lose concentration. They can perform consistently, around the clock. The online grocer Ocado uses automated machines to communicate with robots 10 times per second in its warehouse. This orchestrates the movement of thousands of crates with 24/7 precision.
Reducing bias: Even with the best intentions, humans can make biased decisions. Algorithms can be set up to reduce this risk – for example when scanning candidate CVs. Using it in recruitment could lead to fairer, more objective practices in the future. And, while it is true that AI can replicate bias if left unchecked, it should be noted that this is far easier to correct than ingrained human bias, according to research from The University of Zurich.
Empowering employees: Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, suggests that new technologies have the potential to democratise expertise and predicts the next decade will see “jobs enriched by employees”. Nadella uses the example of a new hire at a car factory who could get trained holographically by a remote engineer. In this instance, AI and VR can break down barriers, giving trainees access to expert knowledge and the ability to adopt new skills rapidly.
Cons of AI in the Workplace
Increased isolation: Workplace interactions are essential in fostering relationships and building morale. Especially with remote work, it’s important to be aware of colleagues’ emotions and sensitive to individual needs. Replacing human social contact with machines risks exacerbating feelings of isolation which can affect the productivity and motivation of the entire team, according to research from The University of Zurich. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady predicts that “Left unchecked, the use of AI to manage people will also lead to work becoming an increasingly lonely and isolating experience, where the joy of human connection is lost."
People want to engage with people: While robots may be capable of carrying out numerous tasks that people can, this doesn’t mean their ‘co-workers’ will trust them. People prefer to interact with people, regardless of how well robots may mimic emotions or expressions. With the example of providing negative feedback, an employee may feel less respected if it is delivered using a robot. This can affect how influential and impactful this technology is, making humans a better choice in certain situations.
AI can still be biased: While it’s true AI can eliminate bias for the most part, it can still occur in the code. The technology can be controlled to an extent by humans and used to discriminate against certain demographics. Furthermore, AI is vulnerable due to its appetite for knowledge. For example, Tay Tweets, Microsoft’s chatbot, was taken down after just 16 hours, after it repeated racist and inflammatory content posted by Twitter users.
Collaborating, not competing: As new technologies emerge, and are increasingly adopted in the workplace, people must upskill or reskill to keep up. But investing in soft skills will be equally important, according to research from The University of Zurich. This will ensure that we can focus on adding value to what machines can’t do, creating a balanced collaboration.
Maintaining ethics: The rapid growth of adoption means existing regulations and laws need to be continually adjusted. The challenge will be ensuring consistent standards of ethical use with AI. Safeguards must be implemented to avoid adverse impacts on human rights, such as discrimination. The approach should be towards regulation as a whole, rather than dividing it into ‘AI’ and ‘non-AI’. There are already numerous agencies to counter labour market discrimination. These will need to become AI and tech savvy to maintain consistency.
Foster innovation: While it’s essential to put safeguards in place, we must be wary of approaching all AI as high risk. Precision is key, to ensure regulations are not a barrier to innovation or progress.
Learnings continued: AI at the Adecco Group
The Adecco Group recognises that AI can contribute to thriving economies, competitive organisations, and fulfilling careers. As Alberto Giovanni Busetto, the Adecco Group's Head of Data & AI explains, "A wise employment of AI in our industry has the potential to liberate recruiters, allowing them to do what they do best: listening to candidates, assisting and guiding them in their professional growth."
Meeting changing needs of clients and partners: AI enables the Adecco Group to better interpret data, allowing us to optimise the selection and recruitment process. Continuous learning is facilitated, creating opportunities to future-proof employees.
Automating repetitive tasks: Recruiters can focus on delivering a differentiated service with a personal human touch.
Harnessing data for better service: The Adecco Group uses large amounts of data to deliver a faster service. Moreover, we can better understand unmet needs to drive diversification and innovation.
Consistent management required: As AI learns from past actions, there is a risk of bias being adopted – for example in CV screening. It is essential to add context and sensitivity in decision making using AI.
AI is here to stay, but instead of viewing it as a replacement for humans, it should be approached as an enhancement to human work. As well as the numerous benefits, there are also downsides – particularly the question of ethical use. Going forwards, it is crucial to maintain consistency and accuracy when regulating AI. When this is achieved, AI can be a force for good and help us thrive in the future of work.