robot pepper in a shopping mall
PHOTO: Lukas

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) over the last few years has been met with a fair amount of fear-mongering about its potential impacts on the work world and society in general. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made one of the more sensational claims, stating AI could end up being smarter than humans and create, according to a recent CNBC report, an “immortal dictator.”

Should We Fear AI?

Musk, quoted in a documentary by American filmmaker Chris Paine — "Do You Trust This Computer?" — also claimed AI could end up ruling the world: "The least scary future I can think of is one where we have at least democratized AI because if one company or small group of people manages to develop godlike digital superintelligence, they could take over the world," Musk said.

There is little doubt AI will change the world and we can already see its impact on the workplace. Susan Athey, economics of technology professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, said in a recent lecture that the reality, at least at the moment, is that while the popular press consistently talks about how sentient robots are going to take over the world, if you go to an academic or tech conference, you'll find most experts are still researching how well computers can distinguish between pictures of cats and dogs.

There is, however, a misconception in enterprises as to what AI can do, as well as numerous examples of ill-advised attempts to push AI into digital transformation scenarios prematurely, Athey continued. 

"I’ve seen companies blow hundreds of millions of dollars by letting engineers make decisions without the input of business people. Machine learning solves simple problems, but it is not sentient. And it struggles when applied to many business problems," she said. 

Related Article: 6 Ways AI Is Improving the Digital Workplace

Job Losses and AI

For most workers, though, fears around AI and its impact on employee experiences are largely confined to concerns about losing their jobs and changes to work processes through new automation capabilities.

AJ Abdallat is CEO of Glendale, Calif.-based Beyond Limits, a company specializing in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing that came out of the Caltech deep space program. He believes the fears about AI in the enterprise and its impact on employee experience are unjustified.

"Looking at the dark side of AI is a pessimistic approach to a promising future. I think frankly, in some places, like any kind of automation you will see that some jobs go away, but the labor that was there before finds a new role, and I think those new roles, especially at the level of knowledge work, will be very interesting," he said.

More to the point, as good as AI systems are, they are not going to set enterprise objectives. While they may be able to juggle multiple specific business problems, being able to deal with the nuances of those problems is still something humans excel at. "Finding things that are worth teaching to the AI, to learn and to figure out, that'll still always be a job in the hands of humans. I imagine that's also when it gets kind of cyclical," Abdallat said.

Countering Resistance to AI

There is also resistance to AI, particularly across skilled positions. Sascha Eder, CFO and co-founder of New York City-based NewtonX cited the case of doctors refusing to adopt the Sedasys machine, which automated anesthesiology. Where it is being adopted, he said, it is being used as a tool to augment and aid workers.

AI is most damaging to the employee experience when it's introduced as a measure to eliminate the need for human labor — such as Uber's investment in self-driving cars. Eder added, “It can also meet resistance when it minimizes the labor of humans, such as in the doctor’s example. Leaders need to be cognizant of this, and introduce new technologies as tools for their employees, not replacements. They need to be careful not to position a new tool as better than any employee, but rather as a benefit to employees.”

Related Article: How to Survive When the Robots Come For Your Job

Mitigating the Effects of AI and Disruptive Change

It's worth remembering that AI is like every other disruptive change agent in the workplace: it can create an emotional riptide resulting in heightened levels of anxiety and fear, according to Don Rheem, author of the book "Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures" and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based E3 Solutions. People tend to fear and feel opposed to things that have an ill-defined or unknown impact on what success looks like for their job.

“Change, whether from AI or a new supervisor, is typically felt as risk. The part of the brain that handles risk assessment, the limbic system, isn’t smart enough to distinguish between risk from AI or a shift in office configurations — it just frets that success may be more elusive in the new environment,” he said. He added that any leader in charge of some form of AI integration needs to focus on three key actions to support change initiatives:

Position AI in Success Context

Position the use of AI at a high level related to the overall success of the company. Employees are more likely to accept change if they understand the bigger picture implications for the organization. Leaders should emphasize why the use of AI is so important and how it supports the core values, mission or vision of the company.

Clarify Impacts of AI

Be up front and clear about the potential impacts on employees. Perhaps no one will be fired (so jobs aren’t at risk), but the nature of what staff will be doing daily will likely change. Acknowledge that shift and empathize with them on the challenges they will face.

Ramp Up Accessibility

Leaders need to ramp up accessibility and communications during periods of change. When people feel anxiety and fear as a result of impending or current change — they need to be able to communicate more about their situation. This isn't a sign of weakness, it's a desire to be successful and to have a consistent, predictable experience in their day-to-day work.

Related Article: How Artificial Intelligence Will Impact the Future of Work

AI's Negative Impact on Employee Experience

Sophie Miles is co-founder of Quotes Advisor. She shared three stories of how AI-related fears negatively impacted employee experience:

Loss of Control

A vendor implemented an optimization tool for online advertising. The marketing team could upload different images and advertise messages to the most prominent locations on the company's website and, after gathering some data, the system would decide which message produced the most interest in the visitors. However, the team could not allow the system to take over, and employees often intervened to highlight a message they preferred, undermining the value of the tool.

Disruption of Plans

The CEO of a well-known global lending institution was quickly convinced of the financial benefits and operational efficiencies of using an AI-enabled system to make loan decisions. However, the vice president of analysis saw the new system as a departure from his plans for the company's analysis equipment and technology investments, so he derailed any consideration of the new system by arguing there would be no way the system will produce the results you are promising.

Disruption of Relationships

The head of e-commerce for a regional group of products in a consumer products company obtained permission from headquarters to perform an experiment with an AI-enabled system in some of its advertising campaigns. The initial tests showed unprecedented results. In 2017, sales improved by 15 percent thanks to the campaigns. However, the adoption beyond the regional group and its line of products stagnated because of the resistance of people with long-standing relationships with the agencies that ran the company's advertising campaigns who would lose their jobs because of the solution.

Teach Creativity in Response to AI

Roman Sobachevskiy, finance and investment manager at San Francisco-based Mindrock Capital, said at least some of the fears about AI are justified, but the response should be a different emphasis in education priorities, rather than panic. 

Unlike the human workforce, he said, you only have to invest in and teach one AI specialist to do the job perfectly and then replicate it for millions of workplaces. AI will first take over jobs involving interpreting data, as well as replace specialists such as assistants, drivers, accountants and physicians.

At the next stage, AI will learn to make more high-level decisions, for example, in marketing, where it is important not only to interpret data, but also to understand goals. Finally, in the completely automated corporations, humans will have to set certain parameters, such as desired revenue and maximum risk level, which will limit machines in decision making.

"However, ability to think creatively, connect the dots, notice certain needs of people — these are the things that are hard for machines to do. This is why you should teach your children creativity. It will be more in demand than technical knowledge in the future," he said.