Gloria Spittel considers the ramifications of adopting more AI systems in future organisations

The very mention of AI conjures up dystopian imagery of robots taking over the workplace, ‘mind reading’ algorithms ‘suggesting’ products to consumers and a time bending scale of automation amongst others.

Yet, amidst all the deep dark fears, rationality is creeping in. Many experts, business tycoons, owners and executives seemingly suggest that AI is not a one-sided coin.

AI’s disruptive nature in the workforce is still some years – or even decades – away. However, with ever increasing advancements in technology, deployment will occur in stages. Presently, low skilled repetitive tasks could be and are conducted by AI systems, while complex ones that are used for medical diagnosis, driving and high-risk jobs are constantly being improved.

The dystopian AI centred future of work is entirely possible. But that is likely to happen only if workforces aren’t prepared for the oncoming changes, not skilled to meet them and nothing changes from present-day realities – which would have changed inadvertently from the time of writing to when this article is published!

So what are the upsides of AI in the workforce?

Firstly and contrarily, AI will be the creator of new jobs! According to Gartner, by 2020 AI will create 2.3 million jobs while eliminating 1.8 million across industries beyond the obvious job creation directly linked to the further development of such systems – such as experts for data mining, data cleaning and data warehousing.

Job creation will also stem from the application of existing skills in new areas. For instance, experts in languages, ethics and other humanities are necessary to develop AI systems that understand the syntaxes of human language, communication and empathy.

As AI capabilities develop, systems will be able to handle tasks ranging in complexity, which will free time for employees to focus elsewhere. The importance of such free time could lead to creative breakthroughs to existing problems in the workplace and the world at large, and also result in completely new careers – careers that are unheard of today, just as ‘big data analyst’ or ‘social media expert’ were designations not in existence until a decade or so ago.

However, things could go wrong and the possible positive outcomes of AI systems for job creation may never materialise. But in the context of a slowing or stagnant global economy, these concerns aren’t unfounded. And even without new job creation, AI systems will still prove to be advantageous to the workforce. How so?

Simply by improving jobs.

For jobs that are repetitive, it isn’t hard to see how AI systems could provide benefits; in fact, even digitalisation would provide these benefits. Efficiency in manufacturing and reduced time for processes will improve productivity and eventually profitability.

But beyond this obvious advantage of AI’s presence in the workforce, it offers at least three benefits to existing jobs.

Firstly, as in repetitive tasks, AI systems offer high efficiency in complex industries such as pharmaceuticals, healthcare, economics and finance to name a few. Given that AI systems are provided with accurate and relevant data, the speed at which this information can be analysed and searched for patterns – either in collaboration with human partners or by itself – will yield quicker results.

For instance, in the global healthcare sector, AI systems that are deployed and equipped to work with large quantities of data could be the difference in containing a major unknown outbreak through the rapid development of a counteractive drug.

Secondly, AI systems deployed in high-risk jobs will dramatically improve working conditions for employees who were previously engaged in such roles. For businesses, this could translate into lower insurance payouts and premiums, and better overall safety for employees.

While human resource (HR) functions are not generally considered high-risk jobs, the stress of the recruitment process could take a toll on employees – especially those working under tight manpower deadlines. AI systems used in HR recruitment may increase efficiency. But beware of intrinsic biases encoded in data that may affect the integrity of the AI system – something that Amazon had to deal with in October last year by shutting down its AI recruitment system, which produced sexist results.

Thirdly (but definitely not finally), AI systems will play a role in facilitating and maintaining the work-life balance. As more tasks are handled by AI, working people will suddenly find time on their hands either to develop in holistic and creative ways at work or (assuming evolved management) focus on out of office hobbies.

As many modern-day organisations focus on the work-life balance, the utilisation of AI systems will ensure that bottom lines aren’t affected while employees will be able to improve their health and wellbeing.

So what skills would employees need to successfully cohabit in a workplace alongside AI?

And according to Genpact’s 2017 report ‘The workforce: staying ahead of Artificial Intelligence,’ the most important human skill is the ability to adapt to change!