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2020, The Year Of AI In The Workplace

Posted 5th February 2020

AI is going places in 2020. This was the subject of Business Cloud’s first podcast of the year. Host Alistair Hardaker, Business Cloud editor Jonathan Symcox, Tech Manchester’s Trish Keating, and myself took a light-hearted look at where AI is going to be in 2020, and more specifically what will happen in the workplace because of this transformative technology.

Winning the tech race

Beginning the show by candidly comparing different technologies like AR and VR, Symcox put artificial intelligence (AI) on top saying that ‘AI is here now’ and is already making a difference in the workplace. Symcox also said that ‘rather than technologies like AR and VR, AI is the technology that can help every company’ to improve their operational efficiency. Keating of Tech Manchester made the case that ‘AI is underpinning every other technology, whether it’s data analytics or cybersecurity’, calling AI ‘a fundamental building block’ like the internet or cloud computing.

AI is certainly a massively enabling technology, and as more companies realise what AI can do in business and elsewhere (Hardaker highlights deepfakes as one of AI’s crowning – if controversial – achievements) it will only get used in more areas, for more nuanced and complex tasks.

Working with AI

Segueing into the featured interview with myself in the second half of the podcast (after the other guests played an AI-created fantasy game, AI Dungeon 2), Hardaker shared various predictions from industry experts, stating that people are looking for more clarity around AI, and that we can expect automation technologies like RPA (robotic process automation) to be adopted more widely this year. Talking more directly about this shift towards AI in the workplace, I made the caveat that AI is very good at specific narrow tasks rather than improving everything at once, and now business leaders and the public alike are getting a better idea of where AI can radically improve specific operational environments.

On a less positive note, if not handled properly AI and automation could increase the employment divide even further between those regions where there are greater possibilities for automation and those areas which have already utilised automation and are already relying on thinking rather than repetitive work. Business leaders must help employees adapt to a new set of skills based on our innate human creativity, and move into new roles created by automation technologies. With the right emphasis on human skills, business leaders can drastically reduce the number of people displaced, and have a much more capable, agile and strategically focused set of employees.

WEIRD in action

AI will get used in more varied areas of work – for example in HR and customer services – therefore organisations need to transform their working environments alongside their operations to completely prepare for AI. As AI takes on more tasks within a company, humans will need to adapt the way they work to focus on the things that AI can’t compute. Jobs can’t be taken by AI where human skills are essential, particularly the skills and attributes of Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility and Development (WEIRD) that will be the most difficult for AI to replicate.

Focusing on these core attributes allows employees to become more flexible in their work and better equipped to work alongside robotic colleagues. Building upon these skills effectively will help employees to focus more on the bigger picture and less on the nitty-gritty tasks that can be more easily handled by AI. When matched by organisational change such as pay transparency, removing hierarchy and unlimited holiday time, company culture and structure can also change dramatically as an indirect result of AI moving into the workplace.

2020’s AI-enabled workplace

Ultimately, how AI affects businesses in 2020 will be down to those actually using AI tools and those who bring it into a business. Companies that make the most of AI will see where this technology can be used in operational processes, and think creatively about how AI can help to make repetitive tasks redundant for employees.

In industries dominated by tasks that are easy to automate, reskilling workers will be a key factor this year and in the near future as AI becomes commonly used to optimise operational tasks. As AI adoption spreads overall, businesses must encourage employees to adjust their perspectives and move to a new way of working based on their human skills (and entirely new categories of jobs), so that we can make the most out of AI and ourselves.

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