Artificial Intelligence (AI): a branch of computer science which enables a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour and which through artificial neural networks is capable of learning through experience.
The arrival of the technological wave created by artificial intelligence has elicited a huge number of assessments and predictions as to what this means for the future of work. Some people embrace AI unreservedly as embodying huge potential for good, while others see a dismal future for a large part of humanity, predicting dire consequences as machines surpass humans in overall intelligence and render much of humanity redundant.
A widely held perception is that the changes likely to be wrought to our societies and workplaces by the advent of AI will be nothing less than revolutionary-destroying or replacing in a short space of time much of what is familiar and creating entirely new systems and ways of solving problems.
This has given rise to a great debate as to whether to welcome the great opportunities afforded by AI or to fear it as representing a force which we will be unable to control.
In a speech given in November 2017, the late Steven Hawking, while emphasising that embracing AI may be initiating or even inviting unforeseen perils, said the following:
“I am an optimist and believe that we can create AI for the good of the world. That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance “
Since AI is already a presence in many workplaces, we need to understand the long-term consequences on our workforces as tasks pass from workers to machines. More particularly, how will increasing implementation of AI systems affect the drive to make our workplaces, demographically and cognitively more diverse?
Many progressive organisations and businesses have recognised and embraced the notion that establishing teams composed of people who possess diverse thinking styles enhances the capacity for innovative ideas and creates material benefits for the organisation. Will the power of AI render workforce demography irrelevant and eliminate the need to diverse thinkers who collectively generate the bulk of innovative ideas?
This is not a hypothetical question or an issue to be reserved for future deliberation. The influence of intelligent technology is changing the commercial landscape at a bewildering pace. Entrepreneurs are seizing upon the powerful learning ability of algorithms to look for ways of disrupting entire industries. A notable example here is driverless cars in the transport industry. At the same time, companies are seeking opportunities to radically remodel all aspects of their operations so as to gain competitive advantage while labour experts have concluded that many job categories will simply disappear as their functions are superseded by computers applying algorithms which do the job much more efficiently.
On the jobs front, a McKinsey report found that 30% of work activities could be automated by 2030 and up to 375 million workers worldwide could be affected by emerging technologies. The OECD has taken a different approach focusing. on “tasks “rather than jobs”. It estimated that 14% of jobs are highly automatable and another 32% have a significant risk of automation.
More recently, a somewhat more optimistic view has been taken of the way that AI will be integrated in our workplaces. Experts who spoke at the MIT Sloan Summit (2018) indicated that while machines can undoubtedly perform some tasks better than humans, they cannot generally perform all tasks needed for a job. A similar view is to be found in a comprehensive analysis from McKinsey Global Institute (May 2018), where the following assertion appears:
“Accompanying the adoption of advanced technologies into the workplace will be an increase in the need for workers with finely tuned social skills-skills that machines are a long way from mastering”
Thus instead of an outright contest to see whether humans can resist an invasion by AI there will very likely be partnerships or collaboration on a broad scale in the workplace between AI machines and humans.
An insightful and cogent appraisal of how AI could be leveraged to be married with soft skills possessed by humans comes from a report published by TATA communications (2018). This report also adopts and endorses the premise that humans and AI systems can, and most probably will, interact in ever increasing ways in the workplace.
It bases its theoretical approach on the highly regarded work of Professor Scott Page , especially in his latest publication, The Diversity Bonus which postulates that the more diverse the participants, the more opportunities to discover insights and novel approaches. Accordingly, the authors of the TATA study set out to ascertain how this principle might work when one or more of the participants is an AI machine.
The study surveyed more than 120 business leaders across a range of industries to gauge current interest in and understanding of, AI with particular regard to the impact of positive trends within their organisations.
Four themes about the future role of AI emerged from the study and each one has implications for optimising cognitive diversity within the organisation:
- The structure of work will change and require greater agility and flexibility
Today candidates are hired for a specific role. In future candidates might be hired on the assumption that they will fill multiple roles over their career. Roles will move from being task-based to strategic, requiring more expansive cognitive skills. Since roles will be changing multiple times over the course of careers, each candidate will have to employ diverse cognitive skills to manage the different roles and AI can be used to map the diverse talent opportunities available within a company .
- AI has the potential to help individuals become more agile, curious and nimble.
As time is freed up through the use of AI, workers’ time will be available for more creative tasks and more opportunities to think in non-linear ways. Team members will have time to debate and seek fresh ways of approaching and solving problems. The more diverse the totality of contributors, the greater the likelihood of coming up with innovative solutions.
- AI has the potential to enhance human collaboration
AI could facilitate team composition, organisation and communications such as offering new and alternate ways of approaching a team session,( especially those where various members are dispersed across diverse global locations) and utilising its ability to translate multiple languages used by participants. This means that diverse thinking from many sources across the globe could be merged and cross-pollinated in real time more efficiently
- AI has the potential to enhance cognitive diversity within groups
Leaders often make judgements on their own about strategic and operational matters. AI systems could help to source expert advice from other areas in the organisation efficiently, breaking down silos and bringing together a diverse set of viewpoints.
Most crucially, the overarching conclusion is expressed thus:
“With autonomous processes becoming more scalable, original and diverse ideas will create competitive advantages. By building diverse teams through a combination of workers and machines, the number of new cognitive skills will be multiplied, increasing the ability to turn a problem around, look at it from different directions and deploy different skills to find creative solutions.”
Having said that, it will be up to organisations and their leaderships to lay the groundwork by pushing ever harder to employ and promote employees whose thinking styles differ from the conventional. Companies and organisations will reap the benefits of AI to the maximum if the workers who interact with it possess the diversity of cognitive skills to discover the myriad ways in which AI can be used to the advantage of the organisation. If this is done, workers will be able to employ to the maximum the humanistic skills which still distinguish them from machines and to get the best outcomes from the diverse thinking when humans and AI machines work in concert.