HR must embrace AI or risk ‘irrelevance’, say experts

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The UK’s adoption and development of ethical artificial intelligence (AI) could deliver a “major boost” to the economy, a House of Lords report published yesterday (17 April) argued, in an attempt to convince businesses and the public to embrace automation.

According to parliament’s AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?, the country is in a “unique position” to develop AI and should “make the most” of its advantage rather than be reactive, provided it is ‘ethical’ in its approach.

“The UK has a unique opportunity to shape AI positively for the public’s benefit and to lead the international community in AI’s ethical development, rather than passively accept its consequences,” Lord Clement-Jones, chairman of the committee, said.

The adoption of AI is something experts hope will contribute to the UK’s so-called ‘productivity puzzle’, which has seen workplace productivity remain broadly stagnant since the 2008 financial crisis.

In response, some experts have suggested that for AI to effect change, HR and businesses must be ready to rethink the ways they structure and navigate work.

Giving evidence to the cross-parliamentary committee, the Center for Data Innovation said a means of improving Britain’s productivity was “particularly critical”, adding: “Unless Britain can find a way to boost productivity, social and political crises will increase as incomes stagnate”.

However, in order for national productivity to benefit from AI, the technology must be developed in a way that will benefit both large and small businesses, so that SMEs are not left behind in advancing their technological capacity.

Experts, think tanks and recent studies have all raised concerns that AI will disrupt future employment patterns, with a recent report from the Centre for London and EY warning that around a third of jobs in the capital have a high potential for automation in the next 20 years.

While evidence in this area is speculative, the Lords’ report warned that automation of blue and white-collar jobs could take place over a very short period of time, which may hinder the ability of those made redundant to find alternative work.

A key recommendation of the report is that the government dedicates time and effort to reskilling working groups likely to be affected by the adoption of AI.

According to new research, however, a third of UK workers believe their jobs will be automated within the next 10 years. Nearly 10 per cent expect this will happen within two years, found payroll firm ADP. Of that group, more than half think their employers are not doing enough to reskill them in advance.

According to recent reports, those between the ages of 16 and 35 are more likely to believe their jobs will be taken over by automation in the next decade and, geographically, London-based workers are the most fearful of this happening.

Giving evidence to parliament, professional services company Accenture UK said “those who were left behind by such fast-moving technological developments in the past – minorities, women, working mothers, disabled persons” needed to be included and prioritised in such efforts.

The committee suggested five principles, including that AI be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity, operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness, and not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities.

Individuals should have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside AI, the committee said, and the autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in AI.

Robert Bolton, partner in KPMG’s Global HR Center of Excellence, told People Management that successful adoption of AI demanded that HR professionals radically rethink working lives.

“Unless we are prepared to reinvent the ways work occurs, the allocation of work and the human-machine partnership, we will simply be stuck with sub-optimal automation of tasks within a job structure that has not changed,” he said.

“So many organisations are still in a last-century mindset of having one important employer value proposition. Unless HR functions start adopting a new mindset, they risk becoming increasingly irrelevant and changing into an ‘admin factory’. That could be achieved by another service or a third party, leaving very little in terms of the professional value-add.”

Preparing for an artificially intelligent future, Bolton added, meant HR adopting new disciplines of ‘workforce shaping’, which were scenario-based and worked backwards from the skills needed in the future.

The process, Bolton said, should also recognise the increasing diversity of the future workforce: “Multiple generations, contingent workers, full-time and part-time and permanent roles; seeking an optimal balance between all of these things.”

He said the growth of technology presented a significant opportunity for HR leaders. “Many C-suites know this is happening, but don’t know what the practical steps should be to tackle it. No one is managing the overall workforce impact and seeking to do the shaping.

“Forward-thinking organisations are working on this now, and seeking to understand how they can build capabilities in their HR function that will help them understand how the workforce of the future looks, and how they will navigate towards it,” Bolton added.

To mitigate the risks presented by AI, the Lords committee is recommending a focus on ethical approaches to the development of technology, and preparing the public to challenge cases of misuse.

The report called for a cross-sector AI code to be established, based on principles including an emphasis on the creation of AI “for the common good”.

“We want to make sure this country remains a cutting-edge place to research and develop this exciting technology,” Lord Clement-Jones said.

“We’ve asked whether the UK is ready, willing and able to take advantage of AI. With our recommendations, it will be.”

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