It is amazing what difference a few months can make. Not so long ago, there was a widely-held view that the workplace as we know it was about to face fundamental change, with a whole range of jobs currently filled by people with varying levels of qualifications being replaced by machines. Some experts suggested that as many as half of jobs could be in the firing line. Not for nothing was there a surge of interest in the idea of a Universal Basic Income, or something similar, as a response to the idea that great swathes of the population would have nothing to do and, more important, nothing to live on. In recent months, however, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, the technologies that enable this latest form of automation, have attracted rather more positive opinions. Even the authors of one of the studies that — they say unintentionally — helped kick-start the panic over robots taking over jobs have adopted a more nuanced approach.
However, a generally upbeat message is offered by a study carried out by the CIPD, the U.K.’s professional body for HR and people development, and PA Consulting, the global transformation and innovation consultancy. The report, People and Machines: From Hype to Reality, suggests that, rather than “an inevitable march of the robots” leaving poor quality jobs and mass unemployment, the new technologies could create “a positive human future and social gains through higher skilled jobs, flexible ways of working and creating environments where people’s ingenuity can flourish.”
Find out why HR is the key to unlocking the transformational benefits of AI and automation
However, as Katharine Henley, workforce transformation expert at PA, makes clear, this happy outcome is not inevitable. It requires employers and business leaders to consider the people perspective and integrate technology plans into a well-developed people strategy. In particular, HR departments need to take a more central role than is largely the case at present. “They need to constantly show their value,” she says, adding that — by encouraging management teams to think more strategically about the issue — they can look at the “human element” and improve the employee experience. Indeed, one of the more surprising findings in the survey was that employees felt the introduction of AI might improve their wellbeing through providing opportunities to learn more things, requiring them to do fewer monotonous tasks and giving them more control over their work.
The report stresses that some types of jobs are obviously more likely to be affected by AI and automation more than others. Among those deemed to be less likely to suffer an impact are sales and service workers — “perhaps because they are strongly customer-facing”. However, Sanjeev Sularia, chief executive and co-founder of the retail intelligence business Intelligence Node, argues that retail is being transformed by the new technology. Sularia, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, says that, thanks to AI, his company is able to help retailers adjust prices and inventory in real time and so make them more competitive and responsive to customers. He still sees a role for the sales person, but insists that they will have to be much more proactive than is generally the case at present. In addition to being much more attentive and able to anticipate what customers want, they will need to be prepared to use the technology in order to, for instance, sell related goods or services at the till.
The fact that sales people and others will need intervention from HR departments that — as the PA/CIPD report points out — have hitherto allowed themselves to be sidelined is only part of the story. Even allowing for the potential positive outcome arising from humans no longer having to do so many menial, boring or dangerous tasks, there are still issues to overcome. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is among those warning that there are potential risks to employees and society in general. A lot of his concerns center on the data that consumers effectively give to technology companies and the fact that AI can process, analyze and act on that information increasingly quickly and effectively. But, while acknowledging that AI has the potential to boost productivity and so help make everybody better off, he also cautions that more care be taken to assess the impact on working people than was the case with globalization and innovation. There is, for instance, a difference between AI that simply replaces jobs and that which helps people fulfil their roles better.
And those implementing AI need to both recognize that difference and respond to it. This obviously applies to HR professionals, who — as Henley points out — are not as far down the AI road themselves as one might expect. But also to all business leaders, as well as politicians and policymakers. Rising concerns over use of data demonstrate what can happen when the technology companies are free to develop as they wish.