Preparing for a different future

On 1 December 2016, I participated in a CIPD Liverpool Group event at which we discussed the future of work, in particular:

Robotics, Automation, Artificial Intelligence: How will human beings interact with the new technology?

Slightly ironically, given we were talking about technology, we couldn’t live blog or tweet the event as we were in an underground room with no wifi; however, I did manage to make some notes which form the basis of this blog!

Liverpool John Moores University’s Head of HR Programmes Maureen Royce was leading the event with contributions from Sarah Dixon and me, amongst others.

Maureen started us off:

We need to work out what our roles will be in future in terms of AI and robotics. We have seen the power of robotics when it comes to brain surgery – robotic fingers have a dexterity that humans don’t. Google the word “robot”. You will find unpleasant featured white plastic things marching towards Armageddon with us. There are mixed views about robots – there is a strong fear element, which is not helped by newspaper headlines saying “the robots are here to take our jobs”.

There is increased emphasis on collaboration using technology. This gives us an opportunity to connect and work with people virtually. Sometimes all of the contact between team members is via social media or technology. How do we work with that? The CIPD is about humans and human relationships. What do we need to do when the connectivity doesn’t stop? If all the things we do are visible to Google, how are they going to use it? Human and ethical questions are part of the HR heartland.

What does leadership look like in this environment? We need to work differently and connect differently. It requires a whole different area of skills. Globalisation means we have real time connections. The demographics are changing – Facebook is gaining an older demographic. The academic work talks about being “global and inclusive” but Maureen takes issue with the word “inclusive” because not everyone can access the Internet in every country. Are we creating a division between “those who know and who can” and “those who are excluded”?

For some, “work” can be anywhere, any time. Work-life balance is a concern – maybe we are moving more towards “flow”? If you’re responsible for employee welfare at an organisation and someone says “I work best at 3am”, how do you deal with that?

At this point I stepped up to speak a bit about automation and AI.

I quoted a recent report from Deloitte & Oxford University which said that 35% of UK jobs were at risk of automation in next 20 years. Also the former McDonald’s CEO recently told America’s Fox News that a proposed increase in the minimum wage would make companies consider robot workers, saying, “It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries.” And the supplier of both Apple and Samsung, Foxconn, recently reported that it replaced 60,000 jobs with robots.

IBM built a supercomputer called Deep Blue which beat grand master Garry Kasparov at Chess. They wanted another Grand Challenge and were pondering trying to develop a machine that could pass the Turing Test. They decided it wouldn’t catch public’s imagination but they decided they wanted a related challenge to bring elements of competing against humans and understanding human speech.

They decided to build a new supercomputer which would tackle the US gameshow “Jeopardy!“. Over 7,000 episodes of Jeopardy! have been aired and it has been running for over 30 years. The basic premise is that it is a quiz in which contestants get general knowledge clues in form of answers and must phrase their responses as questions. IBM set up a special game between their new supercomputer Watson and the show’s two most successful champions in January 2011.

Watson accumulated $77,147 (£47,923) versus Mr Jennings’ total of $24,000 (£14,907) and Mr Rutter’s $21,600 (£12,416)

So what did IBM do next with this technology, which could assimilate vast amounts of information, combine it and then selectively use it to generate a response? They turned to healthcare.

I showed this video which demonstrates how Watson has been developed. 

What does all this mean for HR? Well, there are implications for employees in various sectors. Hospitals using Watson in the US are replacing doctors with nurses. Watson could be used in remote areas where there are no doctors. But taking it further, even those roles that require some kind of judgement which we previously thought couldn’t be carried out by computers could be replicated. Like Human Resources….

Maureen took over again:

Computers might tell you ‘what’ but not necessarily ‘how’… We have the technology but do we have the human or the work ecosystems to manage this stuff properly? How do we reshape work to reflect this? How do we deal with assembly line jobs, first line contact centre jobs being automated?

Maureen quoted work by John Boudreau, who has been asking what the future workforce will look like. “Jobs for life” has been gone for some time. “Rapid skills obsolescence” is the new phrase – the speed of skills redevelopment is increasing.

Sarah Dixon, People and OD Analyst in the HR team at Liverpool John Moores University spoke about the use of data in HR analytics. She asked the interesting question, “If your organisation has provided you with wearable technology, who owns your data?” We have willingly given our health data but what is being used for?

Maureen picked up again to discuss algorithms. Precisely engineered instructions to complete a task mean complicated chains of commands for a machine. A machine might be able to tell you that someone is off sick for x number of days. They might not be able to tell you that person A is the main carer for an elderly relative.

Which roles  are least likely to be automated in the future? Maureen quoted Benjamin Snyder who suggests:

  • Lawyers
  • Hotel managers
  • Education (especially nursery and infant schools)
  • Construction manager
  • Social workers
  • Substance abuse/mental health workers
  • Arts occupations

Which roles are most likely?

  • Cashiers
  • Bookkeepers
  • Drivers
  • Packaging
  • Assembly
  • Accountants
  • Legal assistants.

Maureen quoted Peter Cheese who said that robots will only take our jobs if we let them. She asked “Do we want straight line algorithms deciding what we do about absence management or do we want to put a human interaction in there?”

There are huge ethical dilemmas around AI and robotics. We watched an interesting video featuring Barack Obama speaking about driverless cars. Who sets the moral rules for driverless cars? Do we have a general consensus? The same applies to medicine.

The key word here is “values”. Who are we impacting with that decision, at what point do we stop the machine and say “we’re taking over that decision now”? The technology is there. It will come through very quickly.

The World Economic Forum said that in the machine age only the human organisation will survive. We are in the fourth industrial revolution – the boundaries between humans and machines are quickly eroding. This is HR territory!

There is a lot of potential for augmented reality in Learning & Development: we can get a much greater feel for how people can do potentially dangerous jobs without putting them “in the line of fire”.

It forces us to think about what is special about being human. A machine will tell you what but not necessarily how. Human beings don’t stop thinking. How often do you go to bed at night with something on your mind and at some point you wake up and you’ve solved it? The unconscious keeps going. Machines might be able to mirror learned intelligence but how about emotional intelligence?

Channeling the forthcoming Star Wars: Rogue One film (probably unintentionally), Maureen says one of the things that distinguishes humans from machines is that we have hope!

The World Economic Forum also said we are moving from knowledge economies to human economies where the key “skills” will be creativity, empathy, morality, imagination, ethics and compassion.

“Ethics and design go hand in hand” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

HOW report – there are three different points on the spectrum of organisational characteristics:

  • Blind obedience – command and control
  • Informed acquiescence – rules-based, performance-based rewards
  • Self-governing – shared values and ethics not policies. Only humans can operate in this environment

John Boudreau asked what do we in HR become? He outlined four possibilities:

  • Organisational Perfomance Engineer
  • Culture Architect and Community Activist
  • Global Talent Scout, Convenor and Coach
  • Trend Forecaster and Technology Integrator

It was a fascinating evening with lots of very relevant issues discussed and some eye-opening examples of the potential of technology were given. The debate about the future of work will rumble on as long as there is work to do! We agreed that there is definitely scope for a multi-disciplinary group to get together and consider the major issues we had discussed throughout the evening.

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