VISIONS 2020 PART 22: ROBOTICS AND AI VS HUMANS – CHANGES IN WORKING LIFE
Oscar Mager is an all-round global talent acquisition specialist and Founder of Evertalent with 15+ years of experience in international recruitment. In addition to identifying and hiring the best talent, Oscar advises recruitment technology start-ups and vendors on product features, differentiation, positioning and identifying business opportunities, partnerships and investors. We discussed the future of work and the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence with Oscar – will there be any work left for humans and how soon will this change happen?
Oscar Mager, Founder, Evertalent
CHANGE IN WORKING LIFE
Work and jobs are fundamentally changing. Globalisation and customer needs will require future organisations to be always on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People will be able to decide when and where to work as they will get more freedom to work remotely instead of in an office. They will be supported by technology to connect and collaborate with others, from any place and at any time. As a result, the workplace of the future will be entirely different. For some this way of working – working anytime – will be challenging, especially for those looking to separate their private lives from their working lives. Work-life balance can become an issue. For others, this way of working will be perceived as having endless amounts of freedom.
Already, many people have changed their attitude and approach towards work. In western countries, such as The Netherlands, there has been a steep increase in people becoming self-employed rather than being employed by others. The self-employed now offer their knowledge and expertise to companies, in an independent way, often driven by the need to be part of interesting and innovative projects.
At the same time, there is a much bigger shift coming upon us. In the near future many jobs and parts of jobs will no longer be done by humans, because many tasks traditionally done by humans can be automated or done by advanced machines and artificial intelligence (AI). In many professions this change is already happening and it will probably take place much quicker than we expect. The future of work has started.
As a result, traditional organisations as we know them now will cease to exist. They will likely get a different meaning and a different structure. We will see organisations transform into networks of smaller teams collaborating to collectively achieve a certain result, within a set timeframe and fully digitised. After having achieved their goals, teams will break up and become part of new teams elsewhere. As opposed to regular jobs, this type of collaboration will be shorter, more frequent, and team members will not necessarily be employed by the organisation they work for. Work will become even more flexible.
Many companies already recognise that their current organisational structure is no longer adequate to meet future needs. They often lack innovational strength and agility to compete in rapidly changing markets. By redesigning their structure, companies will be able to adapt to change and increase performance. This new organisational design will be more digital and less hierarchical, requiring leaders to no longer be managers. Instead teams will manage themselves. For most organisations (and their managers) accepting this new non-hierarchical model will be extremely difficult, especially since the traditional way of working is deeply ingrained in our society (governments, regulations, labour laws, unions).
Some organisations have been early to adopt the new way of working. A good example is Automatic, the company behind the WordPress content management system. They have implemented a “non-organisational model” to their organisation to fully support their relatively small and globally spread workforce. Just recently the company even dismantled their head office because no one was coming to work there anymore. This is also a strong message to talent, they can literally work anywhere.
To prepare for the future of work, companies should continuously be aware of how their business may be impacted and how best to prepare for change, otherwise the continuity of their business may be at risk.
EXAMPLES OF THE CHANGE
For example, the role of a recruiter is dramatically changing as a result of increased technological development. In the next 2 to 3 years AI and intelligent machines will start taking over the often repetitive tasks currently done by their human counterparts. Part of the interaction between candidates and recruiters will be replaced by AI driven conversational interfaces like chatbots, available to answer recruitment related questions 24/7. For most recruiters, it is hard to accept that machines can do their jobs quicker, more efficiently and possibly without human bias. Especially since recruitment traditionally is very much based on interaction between humans. However, increasingly machines will also take over parts of the selection process.
In the United States Unilever has just started to hire all of their entry level positions without human interaction, using technology such as HireVue to assess speech and facial expressions, analysing their candidates’ personalities.
Another similar example is coming from L’Oréal in China, who are hiring a lot of people for their Asian operations. They have always turned to the best universities for this, simply to cut down on the amount of applications which can be massive in China. Initially trusting to get the best candidates from the best universities, they now have changed the process and instead use a new, AI based technology for all applicants. Candidates apply through their mobile phones, using a tool built by Seedlink Technologies that analyses what candidates are writing and how they are writing the text. With this new approach, they are selecting candidates from a broader pool. They have now found out that not many of the best candidates come from the best universities.
Applying these technologies will inevitably lead to a new kind of workforce. Using a data-driven approach to analyse the performance of existing workforces, we may be able to better predict what success will look like. This will potentially enable us to create a workforce that is better aligned, understand each other better, have the same values, all of that resulting in a better team performance. Some even say that machines will be less biased in selecting candidates, without being distracted by gender or race. Unilever claims their “machine-hired” workforce is much more inclusive.
Transformational change is also happening in places where you may not have expected it to happen. Especially industries you feel will always be very human-centric, like hospitals and hotels. Machines can’t possibly take over this type of strongly people-dependent business, right?
The opposite is true, these are amongst the industries that are changing at this moment. AI and robots are taking over nurses’ jobs, for example. Robots can already lift patients, distribute medicine, collect patient data and recognise vital signs. AI will take over a lot of healthcare functions, including surgery where AI can be applied in eyeglasses to instruct surgeons, even remotely. But AI is also being applied to the human interaction between patients and caretakers. Pepper, a socially-intelligent robot and part of an EU funded project, is specifically designed to interact with patients.
In the hotel industry, it has been predicted that in five years hotels will no longer employ any people, as their jobs will be taken over by automation and robots. Already in Japan some hotels are fully run by robots. The question of course is, whether they will make your stay a more enjoyable one. With automation and robots there is no human touch, no connection between humans, just effectiveness. For us humans, interaction is a very important part of our emotional wellbeing. However, a younger generation may already be familiar enough with machines to not miss the human touch.
SHOULD WE EMBRACE THE DEVELOPMENT?
Change is inevitable. We will see people in our workforces being replaced by intelligent machines and jobs changing or even no longer existing as a result of technological advancement. And yes, technological development will possibly happen much quicker than many think, however adoption of technological change in many organisations will still happen gradually. In many cases people will have time to adapt to a new way of working, supported by technology. So-called “cobots” have been designed to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace, helping them rather than replacing them.
Readiness and ability to change don’t necessarily have anything to do with your age, but they very much are related to your personality. If you don’t adapt and are not willing to change, it may become more difficult to ad-just and you will be more fearful towards the future. Compared to older generations, we will likely see our kids adapting rather quickly. Where the current workforce had to get used to collaboration becoming more digital, for younger generations this has been part of their system since they were born. They have grown up with Wi-Fi as a primary need and have learnt as much from YouTube than at school. Online gaming is the perfect example of collaborating with others.
CAN WE STOP THE DEVELOPMENT, AND SHOULD WE?
We can safely assume that the development of automation, artificial intelligence and advanced machines is unstoppable. There’s no turning back – continuous development is the human nature. We have been making progress since the beginning of mankind. Take the industrial revolutions we have been through. Humans have be-come more knowledgeable every single day. The new technological revolution we are currently in, is commonly referred to as the 4th industrial revolution. The big difference from previous revolutions is that the pace of development now is at an exponentially higher rate and no industry will be left untouched.
Technological singularity theory by Singularity University even predicts that by 2040 artificial intelligence and machines have become so intelligent that they will surpass human intelligence. The prediction is that by that time machines have entirely taken over from humans. A pretty scary thought.
Then again, if you look at the current rate of development, you see that AI and machine learning is being applied to make life better. For example, IBM’s Watson is working with doctors to identify skin cancer at a very early stage, using machine vision that can read your body and identify diseases. The generation being born now will likely live to 120 years of age fairly easily, because machines will help us to prevent diseases. Not just cure diseases, but prevent diseases from happening. If that’s true, should we fear machines and AI?
Another example showing how we can benefit from technological development is coming from China, where AI applied to facial analysis is currently tested to help predict crime by analysing facial features of people. All of these experiments, when successful, will increase our level of trust towards machines and AI.
WHERE WILL THE CHANGE HAPPEN FIRST?
As mentioned earlier, every industry will be disrupted. Although large companies may have the financial means to adapt first, smaller companies will often be able to adapt more quickly than larger companies, simply because their workforce is just much smaller. It takes less time to get everyone convinced of the need to change which is one of the reasons why companies are looking to change their organisational model.
If we consider where this change will happen geographically, we often tend to think “West first, of course”. However, there seems to be a misconception about how we perceive the underdeveloped countries. A lot of companies that are exploring new technologies specifically dedicate their time to emerging countries, such as countries in Africa or Asia. Countries in these regions will simply skip the level of innovation that we have been through as western countries and that has slowed us down in a way.
The emerging countries will potentially change even quicker than the more established economies. A good example of this is the way China is currently rapidly developing artificial intelligence and computer vision. Their use of facial recognition helps to identify people, to open bank accounts, to secure airports, to give people access to buildings etc. In our culture we will immediately see privacy regulations being enforced, preventing technology to be used in this way.
Another example is African countries and how they approach the internet. We have enabled internet by putting cables in the ground. A slow and extremely costly process. In African countries they will start straight away with wireless internet via solar powered drones. Facebook is currently heavily investing in this development. When these countries can skip this entire phase we have been through, they can also develop much quicker than we do.
Western countries often find themselves stuck in legacy thinking, dealing with regulations or ideas from the past, severely slowing down their ability to quickly develop or rethink problems. For example, the Netherlands is currently investing a lot in constructing new or bigger highways in an attempt to solve digested roads, helping people and goods to be transported more quickly. However, roads may no longer be needed in the future of work.
It is interesting to see that countries like China have already surpassed the West in their digital development. One example is WeChat, a Chinese social media platform for instant messaging, commerce and payment services. This platform already is fully integrated in the lives of most Chinese people and has significantly impacted the way they interact, work and live. Despite being the largest messaging platform in the West, Facebook has been trying to replicate the WeChat model for years.
WHERE DO WE NEED HUMANS THEN?
Where are people needed then if artificial intelligence will fully take over? This is a good question, but it’s quite difficult to give a good answer to it. Where will humans fit in in a future dominated by robots and AI? And how will we get paid? A big topic in this context is UBI, Universal Basic Income which will be provided by governments for people to pay for their basic needs, irrespective of their social status. For now, in the relatively short term, it is expected that robots and AI will help people to get better at their jobs. Even experts contradict each other when talking about this topic. The future will really have to tell.
Don’t assume that all the latest innovation and tech take-up will be in developed nations. Some developing nations are progressing more rapidly due to, for example, fewer regulatory restrictions.
AI is proving useful in what may seem an unlikely scenario – employee recruitment. Further ‘disruption’ can be expected in the most unlikely use cases.
The workplace of the future will better support remote working, collaboration and flexible hours. Is your workplace and workforce ready to operate in a more flexible environment?
The author is Elina Seppänen.