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Three questions we need to ask about AI in the workplace

September 3, 2018

Aadesh Goyal   

Chief Human Resources Officer, Tata Communications

We have lived with the anxiety of the ‘other’ for hundreds of years. It’s a common fear that has haunted literature for centuries. One of the earliest explorations of this concept through the lens of science fiction is encapsulated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, providing us with an early dystopian vision of a fearsome, intelligent being, formed out of inanimate matter by Dr Frankenstein.

In a way, Mary Shelley also gave us one of the earliest examples of artificial intelligence (AI), which is still portrayed as an adversary force in popular culture. The anxiety elicited by Frankenstein’s monster lives on in loose, modern retellings, from Blade Runner to Westworld and the hit UK serial drama, Humans. In fact, a film debuted at Sundance 2018 called Frankenstein AI – a monster made by many, a retelling that literally casts AI as the misunderstood creature.

The pity felt for Frankenstein’s monster is mirrored in modern adaptations. In Humans for example, the humanoid ‘synths’ are introduced to improve human quality of life, taking on undesirable and time-consuming jobs.

On a business and public sector level they are seen on the streets handing out newspapers, or sweeping the streets, while wealthier consumers enjoy household synths who wash their dishes. However, the humans treat their AI-enabled companions poorly and expect complete subservience, so when the synths begin to develop their own feelings and agendas, a dystopian power struggle ensues.

Back to life, back to reality

In what some have termed the post-truth era, the walls which separate fact and fiction are all but crumbling down. As Barack Obama stated during the annual Mandela lecture in South Africa, belief in an objective reality is fundamental to human existence and prosperity. And the reality is that AI isn’t out to get us.

In fact, AI is no scarier than any other form of human intelligence, be it emotional, logical or social intelligence. However, embedding AI into the workplace does raise questions from a business culture perspective.

So, here are the three questions I am most excited about finding answers to when it comes to the impact of introducing AI to the workplace.

1. If machines develop feelings, how will employers deal with them?

A common issue in popular AI stories is that we don’t value or respect synth ‘life’ in the same way that we do human life. If machines evolve to the point that they have feelings, how will we address their individual needs? Will the term human resources (HR) become outdated as it excludes the needs of “non-human employees”?

2. Will we need to pay humanoid machines?

In the same vein as the above question, how equal will synths be? There is a lot of concern about the inequality AI could inequality could foster by providing a presumably cheaper alternative to human employees. So, will businesses actually ‘pay’ their synth employees? If so, would it be a direct payment to the AI manufacturer, a government tax or would there be some way to reward the AI machine itself?

3. How would we track their progress?

How career-focused will machines be? Will they learn the concept of excelling at simpler tasks and earning further responsibility? Would a machine need a ‘line manager’ to assess it is performing and whether it deserves a promotion? If so, would its line manage be a human or another machine, like an outsourced arm of the manufacturer who could re-programme the AI and upgrade its ability.

Great power, great responsibility

These are but a few of the questions we would need to think about if the dystopian vision of Humans were to ever come true. While this, for me, is a fun way of looking at employee relations through a totally different lens, there is a serious takeaway from this.

Businesses, like humans, can use AI to improve almost anything and everything. It requires a clear strategy and an understanding that, to quote a very different work of fiction, Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

My prediction is that AI will be as useful, predictable and inherently “good” as humans and businesses make it to be. In reality, it’s completely up to us.


Read more about preparing employees for the digital-first workplace here.