The world is suddenly awash with news about the advances and impact of AI and with stories about how it will make us all redundant and allow criminals to invade our lives. But what is the truth? What are the facts behind the headlines? Does AI pose a serious risk to our way of living? What does it mean for the wellbeing and productivity of our employees and what can we do to prepare for the invasion?
AI comes of age
In 1950 Alan Turing introduced a test of a machine’s ability to mimic human intelligence and behaviour. Seventy years later tests suggest AI’s IQ is close to exceeding the intelligence of Einstein. Tech experts are even calling for a pause in AI development.
In their letter of 22nd March, 2023 they stated that AI could “represent a profound change in the history of life on earth and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources.” This coincided with the launch of a new form of AI called ‘Generative Agents’ – or GAs, which introduce a host of positive new technology innovations.
Should we be concerned or excited?
Many of us already use AI – virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Samsung Bixby are all examples of AI-powered software applications. When we go to websites and enter into a ‘Chat’ with customer services it is likely we are engaging with an AI ‘Chatbot’. When Netflix recommends TV shows or movies to us based upon our past choices it does so using an AI recommendation engine.
These are known as ‘Weak AI’ – technology designed to accept and respond to instructions in spoken or written form. These Generative Agents such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, are a major milestone towards the evolution of ‘Strong AI’ – technology able to replicate human like conversations, create original and realistic images, videos, and text, and which have the ability to learn and use their experiences to improve their understanding, intelligence and capability.
They can also develop new software applications – with no human input or involvement. The genie has left its lamp – will our world ever be the same? Concern about AI is rooted in its speed of evolution. In the Industrial Revolution of the 1780s the machines which replaced workers in cotton mills took years to develop and roll out.
AI lives, grows and evolves in the digital universe – without any physical boundaries. Each day AI is given access to larger and more wide-ranging data sources and more powerful computers. Its intelligence and the scope of its abilities are growing – exponentially.
AI Workplace productivity and other benefits
The full implications of AI evolution are still being debated, but it’s difficult not to get excited by some of the benefits. AI is already improving productivity, accelerating routine tasks and freeing up staff to focus on more creative and strategic work.
Stress is being reduced through greater automation and access to better decision support. In the future AI-powered chatbots will not just handle more difficult questions, they will offer solutions to increasingly complex, problems.
AI will improve safety by identifying and reducing risk and by monitoring equipment to detect potential hazards or predict faults, so they can be fixed before they become critical. Technology can work 24/7 without the need for a break or stimulation, increasing output with fewer mistakes.
AI tools are being developed which enable an expanding range of professions to complete their work faster, and with greater precision, improving company performance. Beyond the office, in factories AI robots will be deployed to perform an ever-growing range of dangerous and repetitive functions and AI financial trading algorithms will help investors make more informed decisions for improved returns.
AI will analyse data, spot trends and recommend solutions to issues at a speed and scale never seen before. Think of how AI might help us address climate change, cure diseases such as cancer, or eradicate poverty and homelessness, to say nothing of improving our education and our understanding of our planet, our universe … and ourselves! So, AI is all good – right?
AI workplace risks
Well, yes and no. AI is not good or bad – it is a ‘tool’. We will harness its abilities in new ways and use it to solve ever more challenging national and global problems.
But as AI becomes more sophisticated, some jobs will be automated and displaced, probably at a faster rate than the new jobs it generates and it will add to our workload, as we invest the time and effort needed to track, monitor and check how it is performing its ever-growing list of responsibilities.
Like any tool, when used for criminal or immoral purposes, it introduces new dangers – risks we should all be aware of. AI chatbots, digital assistants and office applications collect and analyse an ever-expanding range of data on our conversations, interests, activities and behaviour – at speed. We have already seen what happens when our personal data is hijacked by digital terrorists.
AI instigated fraud will increase as cyber criminals harness its abilities to impersonate us in ways even our closest family will be unable to distinguish – the world of ‘Deep Fake’ audio and videos is upon us. The principle of “seeing is believing”, which for millennia has underpinned our legal systems and the way we build trust in those in authority, is now in question.
However, on balance, when applied by good people to ethical projects, I believe the evolution of AI will be positive for mankind. Companies like Intel are already working on tech to identify video fraud. Good tech will be developed to combat bad tech – as it always has.
AI and employee wellbeing
The impact of AI on employee wellbeing is likely to be mixed. For example, the removal of repetitive routine work and the intellectual stimulation of applying AI to new problems on the one hand, versus the stress of redundancy, invasion of privacy, fake news, and transfer of control, on the other.
Deciding whether we should trust what we see and hear online, in emails and chatrooms is likely to heighten stress and add effort as we work to verify the instructions we receive and the data we rely on to make decisions. Was it really my CEO who called asking me to urgently wire funds to a new supplier in China?
Eight step plan for the impact of AI
Given everything we currently know, the time to start preparing is now for the impact of AI. AI is a moving target – how long it will take to fully prepare will depend on the speed of its evolution and the nature of your organisation. Tech centric companies are likely to be impacted quickest and will need to prepare most urgently.
But manufacturing and service focused businesses will still need to act their suppliers, customers and competitors all adjust to take advantage of the new opportunities AI presents. What can UK businesses do to leverage AI’s abilities at the same time as reducing exposure to risk?
Below are eight actions all companies should take, without delay:
1. Evaluate available AI Tools
Explore the tools currently available and where they can add value to key functions in your business such as customer services, finance, operations, sales and marketing, to improve productivity. Select one or two to trial and learn from each evaluation.
2. Formulate an AI Strategy
Develop a high-level AI strategy covering the business’ approach to AI; Who will own your AI strategy? Is a full time or part-time team which own the AI agenda and periodically report back to the board? Who should be on the AI team? Where can AI be used to improve productivity? Can it be used to improve your product or service offerings? Where could it increase risk to the organisation?
3. Publish your AI guidelines and policy
Introduce the person / team that owns the AI agenda to your employees. What is the role of AI in the organisation in each of your key functions? What are your policies regarding internal use of AI? How will AI use be governed? How should staff report possible AI cyber-attacks?
4. Recognise AI’s limitations
AI is open to bias and error – as both GAs will tell you if you ask them, ChatGPT and Bard are still learning. Their reference points are growing but still limited. When using AI for research always verify the source of the insights provided and if the information is the latest available. AI tools are only as good as the code used to instruct them – like all technology they have faults and are prone to error.
5. Engage, educate and celebrate
Start by automating simple activities and gradually introduce more complex tasks as the organisation becomes more comfortable with AI. Train staff on how to use AI-powered systems and how to manage the associated risks. Create a regular forum to proactively share learnings from the use of, and research into, AI. Make sure all employees know about the latest cyber threats and how to recognise and report them. And publish AI successes – reduce any fears regarding AI’s impact and encourage better understanding and recognition of the potential rewards. Foster a culture of reward for suggestions on how AI could be used to improve company performance.
6. Learn from your peers and competitors
Keep a close eye on how competitors use AI and consider joining any sector specific AI forums where AI experiences are shared for common gain. Businesses already research the product, service and pricing strategies of competitors – add AI onto the research list.
7. Limit AI’s control
AI offers huge potential but it is far from perfect – and it may well never be. AI is getting smarter but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can be trusted to ‘take control’ – particularly over functions or systems which are mission critical to the operation of the organisation. Test and retest and where possible, simulate, before granting it more access to key systems.
8. Continually monitor AI’s impact on your employees
Even the tech experts are nervous about the potential impact of AI – employees will be listening to the news, the warnings and the horror stories. Adapt employee surveys to cover their experiences and feelings towards AI and run these surveys a little more frequently – as we know, AI is evolving fast.
AI is not a silver bullet or an alien monster, it is a tool. Companies should carefully evaluate the impact of AI on their employees and their business and take a considered approach to this exciting, but imperfect, technology.
CEO Grant Price brings more than 25 years of board and ‘C’ level experience to YOHO Workplace Strategy, a research-driven ‘workplace’ business consultancy, which specialises in boosting employee wellbeing and productivity, and business performance at major global companies. The business helps employers with office-based employees, solve challenges ranging from wellbeing, attrition, attracting talent, remote and hybrid working, company culture, and working policies and procedures.