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Why Robots In The Office Underline The Need For Greater Workplace Trust

01/12/2016 14:49

Artificial Intelligence has the potential to transform our world. But first, says Tom McQueen, MD of digital innovation consultancy Futurice, let's ask how it will impact our workplace culture.

News that Google and Facebook will between them create 3,500 new jobs in London is a great boost to the UK tech scene and a much-needed vote of confidence in post-Brexit Britain. It is also potentially good news for the development of AI in the UK: both companies are at the forefront of reinventing themselves around AI, creating new internal groups aimed at incorporating machine learning into their own operations.

Google and Facebook are not alone in embracing AI. AT&T has created software bots to complete mundane tasks, while Amazon Robotics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com, aims to empower a smarter, faster, more consistent customer experience through automation. Meanwhile, on the roads, Volvo plans to launch driverless cars onto British roads from next year.

As the Committee pointed out, one obvious consequence of AI is that while it may create new jobs, it is also likely to make others redundant. The World Economic Forum estimates that the rise of robotics, artificial intelligence and other technology will result in a global loss of five million jobs by 2020 with two thirds of the forecasted job losses expected to occur in office and administrative roles. The report also suggests that women are more likely to feel the impact of job losses than men as they tend to be more widely employed in sales, office and admin tasks. Meanwhile the WEF says that demand for new skills is likely to include data analysts and specialist sales representatives.

It isn't simply a case of AI taking over basic admin, stock-checking and clerical type roles. Robots are increasingly performing complex surgery - how will surgeons adapt to this? What role does this leave them? This is just one example of the kind of disruption that is likely to happen across many workplaces and professions.

There is a huge change coming and we need the Government's support to help people re-train for new types of roles, focussing on skills around human judgement and intuition that robots don't yet possess. It also means encouraging girls to study and pursue careers in areas related to STEM. The achievements of women like Fei Fei Li who as director of artificial Intelligence and Vision labs at Stanford University, helped to develop ImageNet, a database of images aimed at speeding up "AI that can "see," should be seen as an inspiration.

Future workers will also need to know how to communicate with and get the best out of machines.Optimising AI means allowing it to learn from the world around it - including human co-workers. While technology will evolve to take the strain out of human-to-machine communication, it won't happen overnight.

Then there is the issue of culture and trust. In an AI-enabled workplace, employees are likely to be freed from the mundanity of unskilled tasks (such as filing or order processing), and therefore able to realise more of their intellectual and creative potential. For their part, employers will need to trust their human workers to use their own judgement and intuition. In those organisations with a very high control /low trust mindset, this will require a large shift in culture. Currently, in these organisations, supervising staff who work on unskilled tasks tend to be focused on measuring their activity and output in a micro-managed way. This top-down approach isn't likely to be effective when it comes to managing staff who are required to apply greater judgement and creativity to their work.

A high trust workplace requires managers to take a more collaborative and empowering approach, for example giving a broad picture of expected outcomes but then leaving the employee to work out the detail of how the job gets done.

Trust is a two-way street. In this new environment, employees will also need to develop greater trust in their employers, as smart tech such as workplace wearables have the capacity to deliver greater transparency about their productivity and wellbeing. Currently UK workers tend to be fairly mistrusting of their employers; this year's Edelman Trust Barometer found that 57% of UK staff polled said they trust their employer to do what is right, placing the UK in the bottom third of countries surveyed.

These results suggest that there is no time to waste when it comes to rethinking workplace culture and prioritising collaboration and trust. While AI and robotics have the potential to transform how we live and work, technology will amplify existing strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. Businesses that involve employees from the start in rethinking ways of working are likely to have a more successful experience integrating robotics and AI than those that don't.

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