Who will win the battle of the workplace – robots or humans?
This Blog post was written by Dr Crispin Coombs.
This question has prompted considerable debate in the popular media and prompted the CIPD to commission research by Donald Hislop, Crispin Coombs, Stanimira Taneva and Sarah Barnard at Loughborough University School of Business and Economics to find out what current research says.
Our findings show there is useful guidance for business and society but thinking that that a simple answer to what we should do is somehow ‘out there’ would be a mistake.
Our report focused on three main areas:
- the impacts of automation on work,
- the social impacts of automation, and
- ethical implications.
What are the impacts of automation (artificial intelligence, robotics) on work?
Overall, our review suggests that these technologies will complement and extend human capabilities rather than remove humans from the process. For example, automated decision support for air traffic controllers has increased the performance and accuracy of controllers without wholesale replacement of the human controllers.
Similarly, an automated dispensing system in a UK hospital revealed that the change had a broadly positive impact on the pharmacists – for instance, reducing the amount of time they had to stay in the dispensary, allowing them to become more active on patient wards.
Workers’ attitudes to and behaviour in relation to robots and AI is a key mediator of the extent and the manner in which they are used. For example, workers’ trust in the technological systems can impact significantly on the effectiveness of their application.
However, workers’ trust and relationship with the technologies is likely to evolve over time, so it is difficult to predict how accepted these AI and robots will become in the workplace, without new primary research over a long time frame.
Social impacts of automation
There are potentially significant social impacts related to the increasing work-related use of AI, advanced robots and cognitive computing – one of which is on employment levels. However, opinion is divided on this topic, ranging from those who predict large scale job losses through the automation of non-routine work, to other perspective which suggest that large scale job losses are unlikely, and that there might in fact be a net increase in employment.
What cannot be disputed, however, is that technology will have some degree of impact on jobs.
Second, as the presence of these technologies within organisations increases, there is a bigger question around skills – as there will be an increased need for people, both workers and consumers, who are able to work with and interact with these technologies. For instance, there are various reports which suggest that the lack of ‘in-house’ AI skills is holding back organisations from implementing the technology within their workplace.
The need for skilled individuals who can work with innovative technologies is outstripping supply. A recent report by the government on how the artificial intelligence industry in the UK can be developed makes a series of recommendations on how this skills gap can be addressed – from developing more industry-funded courses in AI to an international AI Fellowship Programme for the UK. A similar set of policy recommendations would be useful to consider the possible skills implications of robotics and automation.
What ethical issues are related to automation?
Recently, both scientists and practitioners have pointed to the need of a robust ethical strategy that will ensure the safe usage of advanced technologies. There are calls for those that develop these technologies to be responsible for the impact they have on people. It is important that the legal and policy approaches focus on the human values we are trying to protect rather than on the range of possibilities technological development represents. But there is a great need for further research in this area. Evidence on how these technologies are being implemented in the workplace and how those that are interacting with the technologies experience this is lacking and is an important area to focus on.
Another important area of focus must be organisational decision-making process behind technological implementation. How is the choice between human capital and technology being made? What people factors are considered in the introduction of technology in the workplace? For instance, is adequate consideration given to the impact of technology on employees’ wellbeing? These are important questions with ethical implications for any organisation and warrant further examination.
However, it is important to note that due to fast paced developments and emergent nature of this field, only 40% of academic research that we reviewed was based on original empirical evidence i.e. studies that investigated how AI and robots were being used in the workplace. More than 50% of the research reviewed lacked primary evidence and typically ended by making predictions regarding possible future scenarios, often based on anecdotes. The evidence so far, such as it is, suggests that technology is augmenting what people are doing and enabling some degree of role expansion for employees. But we should keep in mind that workers, organisations, governments and society have the power to shape our future in the use of automation. The future is malleable, but it is up to us to be pro-active in shaping it.
Donald Hislop, lead author of the report, will be debating the battle of the workplace at the CIPD on 19 December 2017.
The full report ‘The impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation technologies on knowledge and service work’ by Professor Donald Hislop, Dr Crispin Coombs, Dr Stanimira Taneva and Dr Sarah Barnard is published by the CIPD and can be downloaded from: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/work/technology/artificial-intelligence-workplace-impact
This Blog post was written by Professor Donald Hislop, Dr Crispin Coombs, Dr Stanimira Taneva and Dr Sarah Barnard. For more information on this research, please contact Donald Hislop on D.Hislop@lboro.ac.uk