A worker in an office chair admiring the work being done via AI

Why Artificial Intelligence Won't Replace the Human Workforce

July 07, 2021 Digital Workplace
David Roe
By David Roe

There is still considerable discussion about the things artificial intelligence can and cannot do. While there is no doubt that AI can drive the automation of the most mundane tasks in the enterprise and will be able to do a lot more in the future, it is still unclear as to whether it will be possible to replace a good employee. 

While there are many different characteristics that define a good employee, one of the most important is engagement, or the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees care about their work and their company. So, can an AI driven machine emulate that commitment? Can AI replace a good employee?

Artificial Intelligence's Impact on the Workforce

AI and robotic technology can increasingly replace aspects of many jobs, and in some cases, entire jobs. More complicated is how the overall labor market will look like as AI capacities and robotic capacities improve simultaneously, opening unprecedented capacities for non-human workers, Karla Erickson is a labor ethnographer and sociologist at Grinnell College in Iowa. “We can look back somewhat to previous stages of rapid automation — the steam revolution, industrialization of manufacturing, the implementation of computers into most fields in the 1980s, and so on,” she said.

“Those previous automations do show that new fields and jobs do develop over time, though often a period of high unemployment and labor shifts happens first. However, what little can be discerned from those previous shifts is limited because there are several unique circumstances influencing the massive labor changes that are underway in the 2020s. This wave of technological automation is unlike previous automations in the following ways:

  • Many fields at once. Many, arguably most, industries are introducing AI and robotic technology at once.
  • Capacities considered out of reach to technology are now being replicated. Rising capacities that are technically new in terms of social interaction, physical agility, even developments like smell have broken through technical/theoretical barriers to make replacing human workers more plausible.
  • Current conditions are a little confounding. It is difficult to look back to look forward because unlike previous waves of automation, this one follow other jobless recoveries, a global pandemic, and (in the US and other wealthy nations) a massive public expenditure on unemployment benefits, which is currently muddying the labor environment, making longer term effects on employment less apparent.

Related Articles: 7 Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Reinventing Human Resources

How AI Will Enhance Work

While AI will undoubtedly have an impact on jobs to be done, it will never truly replace employees, said Anand Medepalli, senior director of AI solutions at Santa Clara, Calif.-based ServiceNow.

Rather, companies are realizing that the true potential of AI is to augment their employees' skills and replace repetitive, error-prone, manual tasks with intelligent automation so that employees can spend more time doing creative, higher-priority tasks. As a result, forward-thinking organizations will hasten programs to reskill and repurpose employees to enhance organizational agility, productivity, and experiences through the introduction of AI.

AI is different from the erstwhile automation technologies in one fundamental way: it is not a rules- or a static experience-based system; it is data based. Its algorithms start with the current data but change those rules as new data comes in; its power is in its ability to change its outcomes dynamically as new information becomes available. And therein lies the conundrum: do we trust the AI to change the rules on its own? Will it always be trustworthy, explainable, and robust at all times? “The innate skills and knowledge employees have will still be critical to ensure smooth operations across job environments. AI's role would be that of a very intelligent and an always-on advisor, but the human employee will still be the decision maker,” Medepalli said.

Furthermore, when Industry 4.0 came along, society had similar concerns, like whether factory workers can operate computerized assembly lines or not. Once companies invested in technical trainings for their factory workers, employees were able to become computer savvy, so much so that when additive manufacturing came along, there was nary a peep about how that would affect any manufacturing jobs. Therefore, it is not so far-fetched to believe that organizations can do the same with reskilling and retraining their workforce for the emergence of AI and ensure the staff of tomorrow are ready for any further advances in AI or in any other field.

“Ultimately, employees and organizations need to become AI savvy. They need to learn how to interpret AI recommendations and guide its evolution with regular feedback,” said Medepalli. “As important as it is to trust the AI and its predictions, it is equally important to know and use judgement when to ignore it — because the employee knows something that the AI had no way of knowing.”

AI Will Help Guide Decision-Making

Wayne Butterfield, director of automation at Stamford, Conn.-based technology research and advisory firm ISG, believes that the future workforce will be guided significantly more by AI than it is at present, with real-time AI assistance, data-driven decisions and much of the transactional activity in the workplace all being completed by AI. However, with empathy, intuition, creativity and problem-solving skills yet to be mastered by AI, it will be enterprises whose people best adapt to working with AI technology, to assist rather than replace them, that will be the future winners in business.

 “AI, in all its forms, can be as good if not better than human employees in singular tasks. However, employees usually complete tens if not hundreds of different tasks a month, so AI will at best replace some, but not all of what they do,” he said.

Despite the explosion of conversational AI usage, through technologies like chatbots, he believes we still see the contact center manned by hundreds if not thousands of employees at present. However, we do see some of the simpler customer queries being handled by AI, leading to a slight reduction in headcount requirements, but this also leads to an increase in complexity of the residual queries, which even the best conversational AI at present struggles to deal with.

Learning To Work and Collaborate With AI

Here is another item worth noting, AI cannot look forward, Missy Lawrence-Johnston, principal consultant at ISG adds. Its predictions are only based on the past and prior cognition, so without a diversity of people working on next-generation AI and machine learning, all we will ever get is more of what we have today. Humans in the workforce now need to possess advanced brain-based leadership skills such as emotional agility and conversational intelligence. Organizations should look beyond the traditionally homogenous workforce and be open to talent from non-traditional talent pools.

“The fear is real, but it's not the way we think people are scared. The fear people likely feel is the need to adapt and learn new skills — skills that a machine could never do. That is an identity crisis in the workforce of the future, “she said.

Machines can do tasks humans struggle with without taking away jobs. The opportunity here is for humans to develop and master their executive functioning and provide better people (internal and external customer/consumer) experiences.

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