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AI – Addressing the Human and Workplace Implications

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might the next wave of AI impact the workplace?
How far has the use of AI in the workplace come in the last five years?

In the last five years the stage has been set for what’s being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The technological ability to compute at the scale and speed needed for widespread artificial intelligence (AI) has been achieved. At the same time, the rise of cloud-based digital services via Amazon and Google have essentially outsourced AI and put the technology in reach of even the smallest of organizations. This levelling of the playing field has been a core benefit of technology shifts in the last five years, and is a key reason why we’re about to see an exponential rise in the implementation of AI in the workplace— everywhere from retail to law firms—and in activities ranging from sales and service to product design, finance, and HR.

How is it currently being used in businesses? In what forms and ways?

Research from McKinsey suggests that:

  • Less than 5% of jobs can be fully automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology—up to 20% for middle-skill categories;
  • 60% of jobs have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable, based on current technologies;
  • Automation technologies could affect 49% of the world economy—1.1 billion employees and $12.7 trillion in wages;
  • 47% of workers in the USA have jobs at high risk of potential automation; 35% in the UK, 49% in Japan.

It depends very much on the sector, but in a general sense, tools such as WorkFusion are being used to break high volume, complex data processing, and analysis work into discrete tasks and algorithmically assign them to appropriate machine and human resources. Such platforms look to improve human productivity by leveraging a combination of internal, outsourced, and crowdsourced workers. Users control which types of workers contribute to externally crowd- sourced work. The software learns a broader range of activities from its human counterparts and extends the scale and complexity of what it can handle. Over time, humans are engaged only when algorithms face new obstacles or challenges for any task.

Wearable devices such as health and fitness trackers are increasing in power and popularity and gradually becoming part of the work- force management toolset. These wristbands and tags can be worn as fashion accessories and monitor multiple aspects of health and fitness. It seems inevitable that some employees will be required to wear these devices as a condition of employment, while others may expect employers to provide them.

How are these disruptive technologies affecting people’s jobs?

Here are some key trends that have caught our attention recently:

  • Tractica predicts more than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace by 2020.
  • A PWC survey found 49% believe wearable tech will increase workplace efficiency, while 37% expect their company to adopt the latest technology even if it doesn’t directly influence their work.
  • 67% of consumers said that employers should pay for their device.
  • Only 25% of respondents said they would not trust any company with personal information associated with wearable technology.

These insights point to an evolution in the relationship between employees and employers centered on the right to use personal data, purpose, and trust, all of which are more important than ever in the workplace and essential to any sane rollout of AI in the work- place. To retain credibility, it seems essential that employers express openness and transparency around the use of their people’s personal information.

Chatbots have been used in customer services for many years but are now being used for other functions such as coaching and in HR to answer general employee queries—where do you see this progress going in the future?

Future chat bots will use AI to become increasingly intuitive and predict customers’ needs and wants before they express them. This ability to make decisions for us, particularly the ones that can be made on our history, is one of the key promises of AI. It’s also the thing which could potentially make us lazy and stupid—not having to think for ourselves, so it’s a double-edged sword. So, for example, in the future, you might not have to really read over and understand different employee benefit plans. Your personal AI might decide for you. It would be a convenience, but it would also involve turning over a lot of trust to what’s basically just a computer program—the same one that performs autocorrect on your phone. Would you trust it to negotiate your salary, decide on which employee benefits to choose, and make other important HR decisions on your behalf? The technology hasn’t yet reached that point, nor has the level of trust between humans and technology.

Can you remove the human element completely?

Not for some time. However, although we can expect to see more and more such organizations run entirely by code in the future, and they will have no people—no bosses or workers whatsoever. There are already live examples of this type of company, called a distributed autonomous organization (DAO). For example, one is currently set up as an investment fund to allow for digital currency owners to vote with their invested currency on start-up/investment ideas. The company then executes the investment and recoups the investors’ rewards through a series of smart contracts.

We can expect to see many more DAOs in the future, some running with a combination of smart contracts and AI, but there will still have to be a human element behind it. Once AI gets to the point where it can write its own code, we may have to make stronger safeguards to keep it from, say, investing against the votes. A lot of people lost money on a DAO a year or so ago—it wasn’t because the technology went haywire, but good old-fashioned human crime. We will still need to protect against that.

Looking ahead, will they replace or merely reconfigure the role of the HR function?

We are heading into a world that will require not “Ordinary Management,” but “Extraordinary Leadership.” The leadership and management style required when working in uncertain situations can be challenging. For “Ordinary Management” we apply accepted best practice approaches; it’s the domain of tame problems and technical challenges. But in the increasingly disruption-filled world we are heading into, we require “Extraordinary Leadership,” where tasks are sometimes difficult or impossible to complete because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to reconcile or even recognize.

Determining the organizational capacity to work in new ways— envisioning the future and making sense of complexity – seem to be critical tasks for HR to take control of. The challenge is to explore different ways that AI could enhance and complement humanity, rather than overshadow and form a threat to prosperity. There are several authors whom we’ve interviewed and talked to in depth about the future of HR, and the actual extent that robots will take jobs is highly debatable.

Even among the world’s foremost experts, there’s no real agreement as we are at such an early stage in the evolution of smart automation— will robots take 10% of jobs? 50%? 70%—or create 30% more? We don’t yet know. That is why we use scenarios, for example, to explore the future of AI in business: Telling different stories of possible futures helps us wrap our heads around a very big picture. Visualizing the different possible outcomes is one of the most valuable parts of our foresight work and our books and articles. It helps to articulate the drivers, the fears, the possibilities, and the risks. Understanding different possible trajectories helps organizations make more robust choices and move forward.

Some of the key questions arising for leaders include:

  • How can we create a generationally and technologically diverse culture?
  • How can we drive culture change that aligns with evolving business propositions for evolving customers?
  • Does Human Resources need to transition to Resource Management and adopt a more business–wide strategic role to match all the resource options—human or otherwise—to meet the organization’s business objectives?
  • Chatbots are one manifestation of AI—what other things can we expect to see, particularly with regards to HR, but also other process-driven departments, such as IT and accounts?

Personal AI assistants that operate as a sort of “digital twin” may  be on the horizon—these constantly learning assistants would be an algorithmic stand-in for any given worker in terms of having access to and knowledge of their behaviors, assumptions, calendars, customers, projects, and contacts. This would be a highly valuable innovation in HR because it would essentially double the workforce by cloning every employee “in the cloud.” This would allow for much more effective training, transfer of knowledge, and transparency across the organization. It would also require a considerable amount of trust from employee to employer. Can we trust our employers to essentially hack into our brains and possess whatever exists inside that they deem theirs? Although AI is likely to be increasingly cheap and ubiquitous in 10 to 20 years, human brilliance may become a rare and nonrenewable resource.

Additionally, brain scanning technologies are already in place to monitor rising and falling emotion levels, concentration, and productivity. If used properly and ethically, these technologies could present HR with new opportunities to truly monitor workforce health and well-being. Data collected from wearables and brain monitors could be analyzed using AI to enable continual performance feedback.


  • What conversations is your organization having about the extent to which it wants to pursue AI in the workplace?
  • What does your business see as its responsibility towards those displaced by automation?
  • How can we retain the capacity for free thinking, creativity, and problem solving when standardized and automated thinking is becoming the prevailing mindset?

This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.


Image: by lalelu2000

A version of this article was originally published in People Management.


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