14 February 2018

Artificial intelligence and the future of work


This much we know: technology will radically change the way we work. But what does this actually mean for us humans?

When considering the effects of technology on our lives, we tend to imagine two contrasting future scenarios: either technology will lead us down a dark staircase, or it will transport us up an elevator to a better world. With predictions split between dystopia and utopia, it’s important that we separate the science fact from the science fiction.

Technological advancements such as AI, wide-scale automation and human augmentation are generally received negatively. People foresee a dark, Orwellian future where humans are subjugated by robots, or left unemployed – or even unemployable – as the market adopts faster, more efficient processes. The apparent inevitability of this leaves many people with a sense of foreboding about the future and their place in it.

Despite the positive human adoption of technology up until this point, such as mobile devices that make us more connected than ever to friends and family and to a wealth of information, there is an increasing negativity associated with the adoption of AI.

The Dawn of the Fourth Revolution

Human culture has been defined by eras of great change. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the age of discovery saw us leave the confines of our own lands and venture out to explore the world, marking the start of globalisation. The next great change came with the industrial revolution, which saw us transition to new manufacturing processes as we harnessed the power of steam and machine tools. This could also be defined as the age of mechanical muscle.

We are now moving away from this age and entering a new era defined by technology and artificial intelligence: the era of mechanical mind. This is referred to by many as the Fourth Revolution – the combination of AI, masses of data available through the Internet of Things, the miniaturisation of the computer into a smartphone, and the brute-force processing power of modern cloud technology.

A New Partnership Between Humans and Machines

Despite incredible progress, we are still a long way off human-level artificial intelligence, meaning our unique human qualities and abilities are still invaluable. What we currently have is known as ‘weak AI’, as opposed to ‘strong AI’. Weak AI can perform a particular set of tasks using pre-programmed skills, with enough sophistication in its replication of human endeavours to suggest an element of sentience. However, at this stage this could allow it to simply become the perfect servant – so instead of replacing the doctor, it now gives the doctor almost limitless knowledge at their fingertips, which in theory allows them more time to do what humans can do well and robots can’t – care for and empathise with other humans.

Perhaps the fourth revolution is not the machines taking over, but the start of a new partnership between humans and machines.

Always Put People First

The key to making AI work for us it to always put people first. People and their interactions provide the creativity, persuasiveness, compassion, understanding of consequences, and understanding of other humans to drive the best outcome. The role of technology should be to facilitate this process, not replace it. This way, technology represents the ‘how’ of change, with humans representing the ‘why’.

Humans have always sought to improve the productivity and quality of what we do, raising expectations constantly. This ultimately drives economies and improves living standards. But how much of your average day is spent using those great human qualities of creativity, persuasion, compassion and the drive to continually improve processes and products? Conversely, how much time is spent turning the wheel of endless emails, meetings and reports? The truth is that the average worker is busy getting nothing done (administration) – and this is where AI can help us.

Your Personal Assistant at Work

By developing human-centred AI, we will have the freedom to build new ways of working that encourage and promote our best qualities. This will be particularly apparent in HR, where we will be freed up from repetitive, administrative tasks to focus on the thing that really matters – people.

The UK’s first HR Chatbot is not a thing of the future. It already exists in its infancy as a virtual assistant called the people first Chatbot – a simple app that uses the power of AI and machine learning to perform common employee tasks and answer queries. The Chatbot performs tasks as you request it to, such as booking holidays, checking your holiday balance, processing your expenses, booking overtime and viewing payslips. This is the first step in freeing up employees’ time to spend on core tasks, providing a personal assistant to manage personal HR administration as and when you need it.

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