A.I. in the workplace

A.I. (artificial intelligence) is already at a stage where it will have a considerable impact on the shape of the global workforce. Even if we are still some way off a certain ex-governor of California asking for your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.

Historically, humans have created tools to make our lives easier and our standards of living higher. Industrial and mechanical advances that would now be considered as far from hi-tech surround us every day, from your dishwasher to a JCB digger on a construction site. These technological and mechanical developments are now ‘necessities’ and to manage without them would be seen as counter-productive and inefficient. What does not immediately spring to mind is that these advancements will have undoubtedly had an impact on the employment market.

Automation has led to job cuts in certain sectors, whether it be construction, manufacturing, agriculture, or dish washing, for the past two centuries. However, such technological advancements have not historically led to extensive unemployment. The replacement of intensive human labour with mechanical advancements yielded a positive result: a progression which allowed economies to grow and standards of work life to increase, focusing individuals on more intellectually demanding tasks.

However, whilst mechanical muscle has always been an enhancement for human workers, increased automations and robotics, including A.I., may see humans becoming surplus to requirements for a large number of roles. A 2014 study with Deloitte found that over the next two decades, thirty five per cent of UK jobs will be at high risk from automation.

Faster and cheaper

Fully automated workplaces are on the rise, with a number of large employers looking to replace human workers with computerised alternatives. We have all heard of online giant Amazon’s proposal to carry out deliveries using drones. It has also recently started using 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses to pick up products from shelves before returning them to a station to be sent to a customer: a task originally performed by a human.

Amazon are not alone. There are other sizable employers that are making similar decisions to replace their human factory workers with an 'army of robots' to improve efficiency and combat rising labour costs. Vehicular robots also won’t strike, raise grievances, or otherwise create HR issues, and they will significantly reduce the need for management and training roles.

High risk

Clearly there are some jobs that are going to be higher risks than others and one of the largest targets for automation is the transportation industry.

Today, driverless cars are a reality. Volvo, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Nissan all have prototypes and predict that these self-driving models are likely to come to market in 2018. This will inevitably include commercial vehicles such as vans and lorries.

Computer automation has widely affected jobs in industries such as construction, factory-based manufacturing, and transportation, and will continue to do so. However, white-collar workers and professionals are also likely to be affected by technological advancements. The cutting edge of programming is seeing developers teach bots to think for themselves. Companies are now programming software robots to 'creatively' write, to the point that if you have read a newspaper or magazine recently, you may have read an article written by a software bot.

Replacement or enhancement?

As marvels of technology such as driverless vehicles and A.I. bots grow in number and capability, they will have a dramatic impact on employment. This will require employers, governments, and education providers to respond by having to train and up-skill employees and students to work in other areas. Whilst A.I. won’t replace people entirely, employers will have to completely re-think the structure of their workforces, given that machines are likely to carry out a number of roles and tasks, particularly the lower-skilled jobs that are currently undertaken by humans. During this 'revolution', new roles will emerge and will be required to be fulfilled by people.

Adjustment will inevitably include large scale re-organisations and, in some areas, redundancies, whilst employers modify their workplaces to accommodate computerised workers. Employers will need to be compliant with statutory and contractual obligations in such scenarios. Re-structuring an organisation to embrace technology will require considerable forethought and planning and the resulting role changes will see terms and conditions being amended.

With increased reliance on technology, employers will also have to escalate and bolster their IT security. Cyberattacks are more frequently aiming to simulate legitimate behaviours in order to avoid detection and as robots and computers become more advanced, it is inevitable that hackers and viruses will match the rate of progression. The larger the scale of automation in a business is, the greater the impact of unauthorised breaches of cybersecurity.

The key is for employers and governments to keep pace with technological advancements and to have a strategy in order to deal with the introduction of advanced automation and/or A.I. Those organisations that accept and embrace this will undoubtedly benefit from the rise of technology.

Kathryn Dooks, Employment Partner, Kemp Little

Image Credit: Shutterstock / TUM 2282