Is it all over for Humans? The future of AI and HR

The adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in society has been hailed by some as a technological revolution set to eclipse the invention of the wheel, steam engine, automobile, or even the internet in terms disrupting human society. Optimists believe that AI will allow humans to accelerate productivity, squash inefficiencies and create a world free from want.  Pessimists see the accelerating pace of AI development, without protective legislation, to be the greatest threat to society since the creation of the nuclear bomb.

For optimists and pessimists alike, the future of AI and automation in the workplace, and its ramifications for workers and society is of paramount concern.  Machines and robots have a long history in factories, completing physical tasks.  However, new information technologies demonstrate increasing abilities to complete tasks that involve the collection and manipulation of information in routine ways; these are tasks that have traditionally been completed by human brains.  Companies are taking advantage of this; in a Deloitte survey (2017), 41 percent of company respondents had either fully implemented or made significant progress in adopting cognitive and AI technologies, and another 35 percent reported the existence of pilot programs.

As technology develops, routine tasks that are suitable for automation make up an increasing portion of labor across industries.  According to a 2017 study by PWC, by the early 2030s the UK, US, Germany, and Japan could lose 30 percent, 38 percent, 35 percent, and 21 percent of jobs to automation, respectively.  According to McKinsey (2017), half of all jobs in China have the potential to be automated.  Jobs like telemarketers, technical writers, and accountants are projected to rapidly disappear as technology develops that can do the job better and for cheaper (Frey & Osborne, 2013).

It’s Not All Bad News – Humans have some time left!

Despite the projections, new technologies still cannot compete with all human abilities. Oftentimes, maximal efficiency requires thoughtful incorporation of both human skills and technology.  Technology falls short of human abilities in manual dexterity, creative intelligence, and social intelligence (Frey & Osborne, 2013).  Therefore, it is important for the implementation of technology in the workplace to be coupled with efforts to play to the strengths of human and machine laborers.

In the modern economy, the fundamental elements of work are “tasks” which are aggregated into jobs and roles (Deloitte 2017).  Some of these tasks are routine and repetitive, and some require on the spot creativity.  According to a study from McKinsey (2017), 50 percent of the overall time people in finance and insurance spend working is devoted to collecting and processing data, a task that has a high potential for automation.  Each task is an input into the job as a whole and each plays an essential role. This means that technological improvements in one task do not remove the need for the others, and actually increase the value of the other tasks (Autor 2015).

AI, the Role of HR & Organizational Development

The workforce of the future will be augmented by technology, and it is the role of HR to orchestrate the redesign of jobs and to train the augmented workforce (Deloitte 2017).  Fully capitalizing on the interaction between technology and employment requires thinking about how human labor can complement new technology, rather than thinking about full substitution of technology for people (Autor 2015).

Firms should seek to develop skills like problem solving, creativity, management, listening, and moral decision-making in their workers.  As people step away from routine tasks, these skills will be increasingly important to build the human connections on which businesses run.  The role of bank tellers as advisors and salesmen after the adoption of the ATM provides a good example of how human interpersonal skills become even more valuable when technology is left to handle the routine.

China has more labor associated with activities that can be technically automated than any country in the world (see our post on automation and manufacturing here).  Helping the labor force in affected industries to adapt and gain relevant new skills will be an important challenge, critical to maintaining public welfare, social stability, and allowing businesses to reach their full potential.

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