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What do we need to know about artificial intelligence?

14 Mar 2018 By Esther Langdon

With the AI revolution gathering pace, HR professionals must start preparing for it now, says Esther Langdon 

Artificial intelligence, virtual learning, robotics, deep learning, the internet of things, data science, nanotechnology, automation, machine learning, digitisation, optimisation algorithms… dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ by the World Economic Forum, AI is a huge driver for change, and is marching forwards at an unprecedented rate.

One thing that’s certain is that the effect of AI on the world of work creates polarised responses – the optimists versus the apocalyptics. Optimists see a world of new emerging and exciting jobs, as yet unheard of, and look forward to improved productivity and liberation from repetitive routines. Apocalyptics fear massive labour substitution, job displacement, an exacerbation of inequalities and a hollowing out of the middle classes. 

Jobs that are routine, repetitive and predictable score highly on the automation risk, while those that need the human touch and an onsite presence seem safer – for now. But as more roles are done by robots, many sectors will expand, such as audit, regulation and compliance. Many of our children will be doing jobs we haven’t even heard of or imagined yet.

Businesses need to start preparing now for AI and fundamental technological transformation to be part of customer experience, and building it into their future workforce strategy. Employers and employees alike need to think about how to be ‘future proof’ or ‘robot proof’. They need to be best positioned for skills challenges on the horizon, and to embrace the potential of AI, while at the same time withstanding the accompanying mistrust and disruption. 

This will involve educating themselves about AI and demystifying it, and developing a strategy for technology transformation. Workforce planning and change management programmes need to seek to harness AI’s benefits. Recruitment plans will need to take into account the need for those with digital experience. 

Future-proofing your business

Future-proofing the workforce’s talent is likely to call for investment in learning, training and, perhaps most importantly, reskilling of employees, throughout the life cycle of the workforce. Gone is the ‘job for life’. Employers and employees alike will need to show flexibility, adaptability, innovation and resilience. Problem solving and critical thinking are skills that will be valued more and more as they help businesses respond to a quickly changing world.

Future-proofing careers is also likely to mean a greater emphasis on skills traditionally seen as part of the ‘softer’ skillset, such as cognitive, social and behavioural skills, creativity, emotional intelligence, communication, the ability to teach and persuade others, flexibility and problem solving. 

AI and data analytics are already playing an important role in HR, and one that looks set only to grow. For example, in areas of recruitment, workforce planning (where new kinds of analytical tools are being used to spot skills gaps) and talent management. 

Technology and data analytics is also being used to progress equal opportunities. The idea is that using a machine – rather than a human that is subject to emotions and bias – should help facilitate objective assessment and identify unconscious bias. 

However, robots are perhaps not as devoid of feeling as they seem. The media is full of examples of robots that seem to be sexist and racist, and show as much potential for prejudice and bias as the people who create and programme them. 

It can’t be too early to start thinking about how AI will affect your business, your workforce and your customers. 

Esther Langdon is an employment lawyer at Vedder Price

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