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AI has hardly just sneaked up on the human race with the element of surprise. In 1965, Mathematician I.J. Good predicted that mankind would have developed an “ultra intelligent machine by the close of the 20th Century.” Now we are on the brink of a fundamental paradigm shift in the nature of work and artificial intelligence is writ large in that shift, seismically impacting organisations, and exciting and perplexing business leaders in equal measure.

Artificial intelligence is most certainly no longer science fiction. The technology has advanced significantly over recent decades, particularly with the development of machine learning. Machine learning emerged from the pursuit of artificial intelligence, whereby researchers and technicians looked to machines that would not be explicitly programmed for all eventualities, but could learn from data. Artificial neural networks, modelled after natural neural networks, were found to provide a relatively easy to implement model capable of providing impressive results with all the advances of computing power. Machine learning, re-booted as an essentially separate field, began to gain traction in the 1990s, whereby its objective shifted to tackling solvable problems of a practical nature. It shifted focus away from the theoretical, symbolic approaches of larger AI, and toward methods and models borrowed from statistics probability theory and optimisation.

“Many roles are likely to be partially, rather than wholly, automated by artificial intelligence. This will in fact give many employees the opportunity to spend more time on the higher value, more complex parts of their role, rather than time-consuming and repetitive tasks”

Today we have machine learning systems that are designed to respond to new data without being explicitly programmed, by learning from many, many examples and guidance from humans on how to interpret them – and the technology already has very exciting capabilities. In banks, machine learning can protect customers and reduce criminal activity: for example, our own technicians have developed a system that recognises duress in customers’ voices over the phone, to prevent forced transactions. The sophistication in these systems is continuing to grow as we improve the underlying technologies. We’re anticipating many outstanding advances in the years to come, which in turn will expand and enhance the applications of AI. Up until recently it has been widely-assumed that the biggest impact of artificial intelligence and automation will be in roles that are either low skill, or have a largely manual component, such as manufacturing. However, artificial intelligence will impact a wide range of jobs in virtually every sector.

Machine learning is already being used in some law firms to gather data from past legal documents. Previously, this potentially vast body information would have been pulled together manually from hundreds of documents by a small team of junior lawyers, in a process that could take weeks, and now the same information can be gathered by a machine learning system in minutes. The business benefits are clear: rather than employing highly qualified, high-cost employees to undertake time-consuming, repetitive tasks, these jobs can be completed more quickly and, in some cases, more accurate by machine learning. In essence, any activity that is high cost and highly repeatable is ripe for delegation to artificial intelligence: meaning that this will have a wide and varied impact on the workforce. And of course, there is the potential and universal opportunity for greater job fulfilment.

The impact of artificial intelligence, then, is likely to be felt in every sector and ultimately almost every organisation. So far from being a trend that is anticipated with trepidation, in fact AI has the potential to be a brilliant opportunity for the workforce and the very way we work. This is because the impact of the technology will be nuanced. Jobs will not simply be lost; they will change. Many roles are likely to be partially, rather than wholly, automated by artificial intelligence. This will in fact give many employees the opportunity to spend more time on the higher value, more complex parts of their role, rather than time-consuming and repetitive tasks. For instance, in compliance roles, employees could spend less time running low-risk, routine checks and more time concentrating on intricate and challenging cases. There is the opportunity to significantly increase employees’ job satisfaction and their fulfilment at work. People are extremely valuable, and should be focused on roles that require creativity, empathy, strategy and intellect. Making smart use of AI is not only good business sense, but good for the quality of our work lives. By not only using people, but machine learning, in the right places, the future world of work could be one in which jobs are more satisfying. Ultimately, it should be possible to actually improve employee job satisfaction, in turn benefitting retention.

So how can organisations best prepare for artificial intelligence? Business leaders should be considering how their organisation and workforce can benefit from artificial intelligence right now. As with other technology innovations, we know that early adopters find themselves one step ahead in the marketplace. Artificial intelligence could offer huge improvements in efficiency, brand new capabilities and enhanced job fulfilment and retention; businesses who can use the technology early are likely to find themselves at a serious competitive advantage, while others may very quickly find themselves left behind. At the same time, by appreciating the impact of AI on personnel, businesses can take measures to protect employees’ long term interests. Organisations then should begin to consider how artificial intelligence can complement (and not replace) their workforce.

It is clear that this presents a fundamental question for each business, and one that the entire leadership team should be looking to address. Ultimately, this must begin with a consideration of the business itself, and where people bring the most value, rather than the technology. Artificial intelligence is evolving rapidly, and it’s extremely difficult for organisations without specialised teams to keep up with the latest developments. Instead, leaders from across the business should be working with the HR team, to look five to ten years ahead and consider how artificial intelligence could change the business and the workforce. By considering the tasks that humans ‘should’ do, organisations can at the same time identify the areas of the business that could potentially benefit from artificial intelligence.

Businesses can then look to work with experts in artificial intelligence, to understand how the technology can be applied and the new possibilities that this can generate. It’s not enough just to look at what else is being done within that particular industry: in that case, businesses are already one step behind. Instead, by co-creating with technology specialists, organisations can ensure that they can apply the latest advances from throughout the business world to create real value and new opportunities. Businesses must also consider the impact on their workforce. With the rise of machine learning, it’s likely that many job roles will evolve to include some management of AI systems. Meanwhile, in IT and technology teams, there will be an increasing emphasis on the technical skills that support artificial intelligence systems. With that in mind, it’s vital that businesses start to make provisions for not only acquiring new talent, but upskilling the employees that they already have. It’s likely that lifelong learning, will become the most valuable skill for employees. Businesses must start to plan and invest in robust training programmes that will support their employees as the world of work changes. Communicating changes openly and effectively will also help to prevent loss of morale.

Businesses must also ensure that they are able to recruit the talent that will be needed to maintain artificial intelligence systems. Digital natives, as well as the emergent Generation Z, are likely to be extremely valuable in adapting to new technology as it enters the workplace. Businesses should ensure that they are able to attract young talent through strong recruitment programmes, such as links with universities and apprenticeships. Securing a strong pipeline of talent will be a key factor in determining which organisations can thrive in the new age of work. We’re already seeing exciting applications of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and its prevalence is only set to grow. But rather than regarding this with fear, or burying their heads in the sand, business leaders should look to embrace the positives that artificial intelligence can bring to the workplace. There is the potential to create more interesting, fulfilling roles, while increasing efficiency and even developing new capabilities. However, it will be the early adopters who are able to seize these advantages and lead their whole organisation to success. Now is the time for businesses to take a proactive approach to the possibilities of AI and its impact on their workforce, to make machine learning work for everyone.

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