Workplaces are transforming, AI and automation are everywhere, and organizations face an increasing variety of challenges and risks. To realize the human and business value of AI, we need to shift our attention away from technology adoption centered only around operational efficiency and cost savings and toward considering how we can most effectively design and deploy AI for humans. This requires revisiting current approaches to work and productivity through the lens of equity, inclusion, and empowerment.
SwissCognitive Guest Blogger: Leila Toplic, Technology Ethics Advisor to Nonprofits, Startups, and Corporations. Head of Emerging Technologies Initiative at NetHope, a consortium of 60+ global NGOs. – “AI is transforming the workplace. Now is the time to get it right.”
Today, the AI discourse is often dominated by talk of its adoption – from reports on the current state of adoption and resources providing guidance on overcoming barriers to AI adoption and creating a ‘winning strategy’ to projections for the future. To realize the human and business value of AI, we need to shift our attention away from technology adoption centered only around operational efficiency and cost savings and toward considering how we can most effectively design and deploy AI for humans. This requires revisiting current approaches to work and productivity through the lens of equity, inclusion, and empowerment.
Explore the benefits and challenges of AI in the workplace to understand why responsible design and use of AI is now imperative and learn what you can do to ensure a responsible and beneficial implementation of AI in the workplace.
The current use of AI in the workplace ranges from drafting job descriptions, screening candidates, sending candidate communications, and conducting candidate assessments, to employee onboarding, coaching and development. AI is also being utilized to augment human capabilities in many functions – from customer service to manufacturing.
A 2021 Sage survey found that almost a quarter of companies are currently relying on AI for recruitment and that 56% plan to adopt AI tools within 2022. Looking ahead, IDC predicts that by 2023, 60% of global 2000 companies (G2000) will deploy AI- and ML-enabled platforms to support the entire employee life-cycle, from onboarding all the way through to retirement. And, by 2024, a stunning 80% of the G2000 will be employing AI/ML-enabled “digital managers” to hire, fire, and train workers.
Undoubtedly, AI and automation bring a host of benefits to individuals, teams, and organizations. They can help to enhance and maintain productivity, collaboration, connection, and inclusion in the workplace.
Here are just some of the ways in which AI and automation can markedly improve the workplace:
- Reduce work overload. A recent Salesforce survey in the United States found that 89% of employees using automation are now more satisfied in their role while 76% state their stress levels had improved. According to a new study commissioned by UiPath, 73% believe automation can help attract and retain talent.
- Free up time for work that is uniquely suited to humans. When we delegate repetitive, time-consuming tasks, such as analyzing large datasets, to AI, we instantly make more time available for people to generate new ideas, solve problems, build, and manage relationships. It also enables us to work less – since the pandemic, numerous governments and organizations around the world have been testing and implementing a four-day week.
- Resolve issues faster. Chatbots enable instantaneous communication and access to the right information to directly resolve issues before ever needing to get a human on the line.
- Increase innovation. AI is exceptionally good at finding patterns across large sets of data and then making predictions. This can help us to discover new possibilities and ideas that humans alone may not have found.
- Support employee wellbeing and development. For instance, Microsoft’s Viva helps individuals and teams to ‘balance productivity and wellbeing’ by using data such as the time we spend checking emails and interacting with colleagues to alert employees when to take breaks or start wrapping up the day. BetterUp uses AI to assess a user’s needs (e.g., developing leadership skills or dealing with work/life balance challenges) and then matches the user to a human coach and an engagement format that best aligns with their needs.
- Facilitate more diverse and inclusive workplaces. AI systems can assist us in creating more inclusive workplaces and minimize human biases across hiring, promotions, performance appraisals, employee retention, and talent management.
In conclusion, with AI, work could be much more personalized, meaningful, and inclusive.
While AI promises many improvements in the workplace, it is also far from perfect. Today, bias, discrimination, and surveillance are being built into the systems that are meant to be used to provide access to opportunities (e.g., jobs and education).
The challenge with AI lies at the powerful intersection of biased data and teams, automation at scale, our obsession with efficiency and productivity, and the belief that AI will always provide correct predictions.
When AI is focused on the wrong objectives, poorly designed, and carelessly implemented, we run into a number of challenges and risks, including:
- Bias and discrimination. AI could scale inequality and discrimination to an unprecedented level and thousands of candidates could be denied deserving opportunities. This is happening already: There’s an infamous case of a large tech company using a hiring tool that was discriminating against women.
- Workplace surveillance is on the rise. In the digital workplace, organizations can easily collect and process data on almost everything their employees do and then use algorithms to evaluate employee performance against a fixed set of productivity measures or determine an employee’s ‘risk score’.
- Overdependence on AI. Assuming that AI’s predictions are always correct without properly checking could potentially result in a denial of services and opportunities such as the prospect of seeing job ads. Another risk from overreliance on AI is loss of learning and skills because the opportunity to grow from mistakes is removed or the familiar is reinforced by algorithms. Finally, there is the real risk of social isolation due to work consisting of excessive interaction with machines.
- Excessive automation resulting in the loss of jobs and self-determination. According to McKinsey, 45% of activities people are paid to perform today have the potential to be automated. Even more creative jobs like coding could be impacted by the latest advances in AI. Widespread automation is already hurting many – as reported by Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist, 50 to 70% of the growth in US wage inequality between 1980 and 2016 was caused by automation, and AI could further worsen this disparity. Simultaneously, decision makers may face a loss of control and self-determination when instead of being presented with data to help in making decisions, they are presented with fully-formed decisions informed by their own data.
These are just some of the challenges and risks that AI might pose. What they highlight is that intentionality is key to realizing the human and business value of AI in the workplace.
We are at a turning point. For the benefits to outweigh the risks, we need to adopt a new mindset toward AI. One that is not focused solely on replicating or replacing human capabilities but centered around using AI to maximize its benefit to humanity and enable all of us to thrive.
The beneficial use of AI in the workplace is the responsibility of all of us, and here’s what we can do:
- Get literate about AI. Building an AI-powered workplace includes us becoming aware of when AI systems are being used and how to interact with them responsibly. To get started with learning about AI, consider leveraging some of the resources compiled here.
- Set the right objectives for AI adoption in the workplace. To identify the most suitable use cases for AI to augment human capabilities safely and humanely, ask yourself: What pain points need to be addressed? Is AI the best solution for this problem? Who may be impacted by AI? When procuring and using AI in employment, leverage existing resources. For example, the Data & Trust Alliance has developed Algorithmic Bias Safeguards for Workforce designed to help HR teams evaluate vendors on their ability to detect, mitigate, and monitor algorithmic bias in workforce decisions.
- Be intentional about responsible use of AI and proactively mitigate risks. According to McKinsey, organizations experiencing the highest returns from AI adoption engage in risk-mitigation practices more often than others. For example, you can: Assess data for bias, monitor AI systems for bias issues and address those proactively, disclose when and how AI is being used (e.g., in hiring), and ensure that humans are always kept in the loop.
- Prioritize diversity in AI development. AI is not perfect, and that is partly due to a lack of diversity and representation on the teams designing the technology. As highlighted in this article, when development is guided by the needs, contexts, and values of a select few, unintended biases may become embedded in. A growing body of evidence indicates that diverse teams and organizations perform better than their less diverse counterparts. And according to Deloitte, organizations with inclusive cultures are six times more innovative and agile and eight times as likely to achieve better business results. So, if your organization is developing AI systems, make sure that the teams are diverse.
The actions proposed here are, of course, not exhaustive, but are meant to present a starting point for establishing a more humane AI-powered workplace.
If there is just one thing to take away, it is that building a more equitable, inclusive, and human-centric future of work requires all of us take an active role in shaping AI for the workplace to conform to us – our needs, values, and goals – instead of the other way around.
About the Author:
Leila Toplic works at the intersection of technology, ethics, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals with nonprofits, corporations, and startups globally.
Leila was selected as Top 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics for 2021. She serves on the Advisory Boards of various startups, SxSW EDU, and UNESCO’s Declaration on Connectivity for Education.