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PHOTO: Alex Knight on Unsplash

If much of the conversation about artificial intelligence in the past few years has focused on the threat it poses to employment, there has been another conversation going on that looks at it more positively.

Beyond the immediate impact of AI on human resources, that conversation goes, is a workplace that is driven by the combination of human intelligence and artificial intelligence.

Taking the Long Term View on Artificial Intelligence

Those companies that deploy AI mainly to displace employees will only see short-term productivity gains, argue Accenture's Paul R. Daugherty, chief technology officer and group chief executive, and H. James Wilson, managing director of information technology for the professional services firm, in an article in the Harvard Business Review based on their 2018 book "Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI."

Instead, they said, the technology’s larger impact will be in complementing and augmenting human capabilities. Their research for the book, which looked at 1,500 companies, found that firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together. To enable, or encourage, that collaboration they came up with five principles to help:

  1. Reimagine business processes.
  2. Embrace experimentation/employee involvement.
  3. Actively direct AI strategy.
  4. Responsibly collect data.
  5. Redesign work to incorporate AI and cultivate related employee skills.

Related Article: AI at Work Still a Work in Progress

AI's Role in the Workplace

Since the book was published, the only thing that has changed is the number organizations that are now using AI. Pega’s Future of Work report, published in September 2020, showed that AI already plays a major role in the workplace. It found, for example, there is widespread deployment of AI technologies in enterprises, with 70% of organizations deploying deep learning and 68% deploying machine learning. Furthermore, 67% of organizations are also using AI to support decision-making, and 64% are using AI to reach decisions without human input.

The report also found that 84% of respondents said they would be comfortable working alongside intelligent machines with 73% agreeing that the term "workforce" should include both human employees and intelligent machines. A majority (61%) said they would even be happy being managed by an intelligent machine.

From this perspective, the future of work is not one where humans are replaced by machines, but where humans and machines work together.

Related Article: Can Enterprise Workers Really Work Well With AI?

Is AI a Threat?

To consider AI, the latest major tech advancement to hit the world of work, as a threat is missing the point. AI is the equivalent of an enormous labor-saving device that is the Michael Jordan of brain processing, said Elissa Moses, a New York City-based managing partner at HARK Connect and CEO, BrainGroup Global.

AI can think faster, leap further, recognize patterns and predict outcomes with greater prowess than any single human could. And yet, it is nothing but a tool in our hands to be programmed, guided and interpreted by humans, who are incomparable in their ability to recognize context, set goals, interpret meaning and set strategy.

Just as the introduction of household appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers in the 1950s created labor savings and freed people up for more meaningful pursuits, so is AI revolutionizing the world of work. Those who use AI have the equivalent of a superpower for developing models that explain and predict. Knowing what to do with that information — the human side of the equation — can save lives and make other very rich.

When you consider AI as a tool to unleash human vision, it opens up new universes of applications that advance our capabilities. Moses cited the example of advertising and marketing communications.

“It’s a huge expense and often a hit or miss proposition,” she said. “But with the advances of understanding consumer response using neuroscience insights and tools, models are being created with AI to not only predict success but diagnose what an ad has to do to achieve success. This, in turn, raises the overall efficacy of the industry and magnifies ROI.”

Related Article: Why Artificial Intelligence Won't Replace the Human Workforce

Machine Learning Takes the Strain Off Humans

As AI continues its growth globally, the technology is now more accessible than it has ever been, meaning that small and medium-sized businesses are able to replace human activity with AI and automation, said James Khoury is CEO of UK-based Zendbox, an AI-driven e-commerce fulfillment specialist.

In e-commerce, for example, AI is constantly referring to the central database as each order is processed, so it’s possible to achieve maximum efficiency in every aspect of the order. The fewer the number of human interactions for routine tasks, the less likely it is that mistakes will be made, and the greater the volume of transactions that can be processed.

With AI, enterprises can use multiple data points to streamline processes, leaving human brain power to focus on the more irregular tasks. And with machine learning, computers can also observe how humans successfully process orders, identify predictable and routine operations within them, and take some of the strain off them.

“Within the enterprise setting, things like speech recognition are speeding up instructions in the human to machine interface, and cognitive robotics are understanding ever more complex instructions and self-checking their work,” Khoury said. “The result is savings, which can mean greater profits or more competitive pricing, depending on your niche."

Related Article: Getting Smart Answers With Intelligent Search

AI for Hiring

When embraced and applied properly, AI can also become a potent tool for hiring professionals by offloading the obligatory, monotonous tasks they've always resented and enabling hiring teams to unearth things about their candidate pools that would otherwise remain unseen, said Matthew Spencer, former chief human capital officer at Houlihan Lokey and co-founder at New York City-based Suited, an AI-driven recruitment agency.

HR professionals simply don't have enough time to thoroughly evaluate every candidate and ensure the best hiring decisions, especially in situations where finding a candidate is urgent. Using technology such as AI can help free up their schedules, enabling them to spend the limited time they have on engaging with talent and the teams that need them.

Ultimately, AI is never going to replace the role of an HR professional, but it can make them a more strategic and indispensable contributor at any company. Using this technology in combination with their expertise in candidate engagement, interpersonal skills and organizational knowledge, hiring managers will be better able to create tangible results for their organizations.

Related Article: Artificial Intelligence in HR Remains a Work in Progress

What Humans Bring That Machines Cannot

While continuous improvement in AI is increasing the risk of humans getting displaced, there are many advantages of machines over humans including better efficiency, saving time and less expenditure, said David Reid, sales director at vem-tooling.com, which uses AI to design tools for manufacturing processes in Europe and Asia.

That said, AI is not there to displace humans but to multiply force by working together with them. Machines make fewer errors than humans, but the command should still always be given by a human. Reid pointed out that there are specific things a human brings that a machine cannot, including:

  • Training: Machines require a well-trained person to operate them. For example, you can drive a vehicle only if you are trained, or else there are dangerous consequences.
  • Learning: Continuous learning is key. When a new machine is introduced that can give better outcomes, then you will need to learn new things to occupy a position safely.
  • Improvising: Adding new features to a particular machine always requires a human. To make a device better and more efficient, a human touch is always needed.

It is clear that human-machine collaboration is more profitable than displacement, and that AI and automation are best considered as human enhancements, not replacements.

If instead of allowing AI to replace humans, enterprises use it to allow them to focus on their skills, knowledge and experience, then AI can increase employee engagement and further efforts to create a better product or service, thus advancing the company’s overarching mission.