In an Artificially Intelligent world will we value people more?

There can be very little doubt that over the next five to ten years artificial intelligence, along with robotics, will transform the workplace and the role of people in it. Lucy Standing explores this topic. 

Hysterical headlines of the ‘robots will take your jobs’ type abound and predictions from those we trust to have a view have been anything but balanced. What’s the truth behind the headlines? Will we value people less or more in the Artificial Intelligence-enabled world and how do we prepare them to work in it? Next month we’re partnering with Oxford Brookes University to deliver a world-first conference to address this question head-on.

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Getting closer to the customer

One of the key note speakers at that conference will be Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion who, despite being beaten by IBM’s Big Blue all those years ago, takes the positive view that, “human labour has progressively been replaced by technology and we shouldn’t panic if that now extends to cognitive as well as physical work.”

Instead Kasparov urges us to focus on what intelligent machines can do to enable human creativity. At the same time, the technology philosopher Tom Chatfield insists upon AI’s power to “augment the performance of workers” rather than steal their jobs. More convincingly yet, Virginie Vast, who will attend the conference to explain how Vodafone is using cognitive computing to transform procurement and supply chain processes, insists that AI won’t replace any of the company’s 300 plus procurement category managers. Instead, she insists, it will “augment their intelligence, accelerate their decisions and liberate their thinking.

‘Simple’ work and ‘smart’ work

All of this sounds very positive. Perhaps the scaremonger headlines are nothing more than that.  However, there are still many who feel that ‘AI driven performance enhancement’ will be the preserve of the knowledge worker while others, whose tasks are more routine and replicable, will unquestionably be replaced. Is that necessarily the case?

Many point, for example, to the contact centre, where automated self-service and chatbots seem destined to replace the human agent. The Dimension Data Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report, which has monitored the progress of the contact centre industry for almost twenty years, suggests otherwise. It predicts that digital interactions, already growing rapidly, will outnumber telephone conversations in contact centres before the end of this year. However, it sees no evidence that employment levels will fall as a result.

In the first instance that’s because the overall volume of interactions that contact centres have to handle is increasing exponentially, which means digital just has a bigger share of growing pot. More importantly though, and as BT Futurologist Nicola Millard will make clear to our conference audience, “when customers have a complex issue to solve, or when emotions are running high, they still reach out for human contact”. Customers are often choosing to do that via new channels that have humans working in tandem with technology, including social media and online chat.

Think too of the production line, where robots have been working successfully for some time now, often executing quite complex manual tasks. It seems unlikely, however, that they’ll have that workplace to themselves in future. Our conference host is Oxford Brookes University. They are working with leading robotics manufacturer Rethink Robotics to introduce new safety features to the company’s production line robot, called ‘Baxter’, that will allow it to work alongside humans in mixed workforces. Professor Nigel Crook, who heads up computing and communications technologies at Oxford Brookes, sees combined workforces as the future and will examine the potential and likely direction of human-robot collaboration at the conference.

Are we ready?

At this stage it’s hard to predict with accuracy how AI will impact the size and shape of tomorrow’s workforce. Perhaps that’s not what we should be worrying most about. The more important question is are we ready for the inevitable workplace changes that will come our way?

At the conference David D’Souza, HR specialist and firebrand at the Chartered institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), will challenge businesses to make smart decisions about automation. He’ll warn that they will court significant risk if they value the short term benefit of replacing human talent with AI more highly than the long term advantage of using it to augment valuable human capital.

By contrast Gorkan Ahmetoglu, lecturer in Business Psychology at University College London, will open up a discussion about whether people in the workplace are actually equipped to keep pace with the AI revolution. This, of course, is where training has an important role to play.

Increasingly, training organisations and departments will be called upon to deliver training that helps employees adapt to change; to work with technology and even to manage teams in which AI contributes to decision making through cognitive computing, or where automated agents and robots number among the workforce. People will need help and coaching to embrace technology with enthusiasm rather than shrink from it in fear.

Training for the future

How will organisations view training? We have to consider that some will be tempted to divert money from learning, development and training to fund technology investment. They would be unwise to do so. If, as seems likely, the future picture is one of human-technology collaboration rather than mass job replacement, return on investment of their technology spend will depend upon workforce acceptance and accelerated skills. Cutting their training spend at this critical juncture could prove to be a costly mistake.

Training organisations must also expect individuals to anticipate their own need to up-skill and to seek out training that can help them achieve it. Such training must, of course, be both affordable and accessible. Online training at point of demand – possibly itself enhanced by AI – must increase.

The trend for individuals to drive their own learning rather than rely on employers has been growing for some time and can only be accelerated by the adoption of AI. Therefore, as trainers, psychologists and coaches, we must encourage an entrepreneurial mind-set among our students; a willingness to embrace change, see their opportunities within it and navigate the learning resources they need to grasp them.

Artificial intelligence, it seems to me, will continue to rely on human creativity, empathy and insight for quite some time to come. And that’s the future we need to prepare for.

About the conference

On 15 September the Association for Business Psychology will partner with Oxford Brookes University to deliver ‘Social Robotics & AI’, a world-first conference that will investigate the impact of new technology on business competitiveness and the world of work. 

We’ve negotiated a discount that will allow TJ readers to attend for only £495 + VAT (usual price £695 + VAT).  Register at and enter the promotional code TJ2016.





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