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Three questions we need to ask about AI in the workplace – part 2

December 13, 2018

Aadesh Goyal   

Chief Human Resources Officer, Tata Communications

In my last blog, “Three questions we need to ask about AI in the workplace,” I considered how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics is perceived in popular culture and how this may inform our approach to working alongside it. In this post, I will look to address some of the questions we posed in the first blog and discuss the role we see AI and automation playing in the future.

As I wrote previously, the prevalent narrative around AI in popular culture has been “us versus the other.” In recent years, the anxiety around automation has reached its peak, but we have a more positive outlook on AI. As we recently outlined in our study, Cognitive Diversity: AI & The Future of Work, we believe that AI and automation will actually enhance the role of humans in the workplace.

With this in mind, below I’ve attempted to answer some of the questions we posed in part one.

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

While the world in the UK TV show Humans doesn’t look too far in the future from our current timeline, the reality, at least as it seems to me, is that we won’t see advancement to the point of robots developing feelings for quite some time, if ever. The beauty of AI in its current form, is that it is very good at performing the menial, repetitive tasks that keep humans away from the more creative work they are best at. This will give employees the opportunity to develop their workforces’ existing skills and create more opportunities within their current roles. Additionally, AI is able to enhance human thinking, as it is able to process much more data and information that will help inform human decision making.

As we embark on our journey into what has been commonly referenced to as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” soft skills, such as creativity and emotional intelligence will be crucial for the next work force. That’s not to say that we can sit back and be complacent. To get the most out of AI, we need to prepare the next generation of workers for this new way of working. By investing time and money in education, we can ensure that the future workforce is armed to take advantage of the benefits AI poses.

Will we need to pay humanoid machines?

It’s very unlikely that we will be providing pay cheques for humanoid robot colleagues anytime soon! However, that isn’t to say that the business won’t incur a cost by adopting automation. Firstly, business will need to deal with the initial cost of investment, be it autonomous machinery in a factory, or the R&D cost to develop a new AI algorithm to automate business processes.

Beyond this there is ongoing conversations the world over about how automation should be approached in business to ensure that its benefits are democratised and supports us to create a better world for everyone. In an interview in 2017, Bill Gates suggested that businesses should pay taxes for the robots they employ to take on tasks that would have previously been done by a human. This was also recently renewed by economist Jeffrey Sachs. The taxes can be used to fund government services that will benefit the wider community, such as social care initiatives that fund jobs to care for the elderly, or work with children in schools.

It’s likely that over the coming years, businesses will need to work closely with local and global governments to define how the fourth industrial revolution will factor into the world’s wider development.

How would we track their progress?

There is already a multitude of anecdotal research out there about the impact automation could have on workplace productivity, and the money that could be saved. Humans should always be at the heart of a business, so one way we can measure the progress of automation would be to measure it against the efficiency and job satisfaction of a business’ employees.

As we outlined in our AI study, automation in the workplace could enhance the human experience and communication. For example, AI might flag interpersonal situations at work where empathy or voice-to-voice interaction is needed. With so many web-based tools helping us keep in touch with one another, sometimes the best thing to do is just reach out and see someone in person. Connect empathetically with a colleague—another human being—and think together of the best way forward.

An AI-assisted personal reading list could also flag topics as being interesting and useful. When connected to a personal calendar, the AI could suggest actions that would support hobbies, optimise meetings and enhance routines, such as downloading a new podcast before a long drive or retrieving the most recent version of a Google Doc before heading to the subway. Furthermore, it might not be long before the holy grail of AI research is met: real-time translation and speech, emotion and visual recognition, which currently still lag behind human performance.

 The power is in human hands

Which brings me back to my last conclusion. While this blog aims to seriously answer the questions I outlined in my first blog, what it also highlights is a key issue still to be addressed: how, once AI is fully capable, will humans themselves react to the presence of AI in their everyday lives and what limits will be tested? How we rise to the challenge is up to us.


Read the full report on how AI will diversify human thinking.