AI is set to disrupt the workforce in powerful ways. Its potential for increasing productivity and efficiency makes it an essential part of any business’ strategy.

Of all the technologies that influence the future of work, hiring managers say artificial intelligence (AI) will be among the most transformational. This technology already affects our lives in a multitude of ways. From banks using anti–money laundering algorithms as they filter transactions, to call center chatbots augmenting customer interactions, leading companies across industries harness the power of AI to increase operational efficiency and make faster, more informed decisions.

Today’s AI applications will seem narrow and mundane compared to the impact we anticipate over the next decade. Rapid advances in the field of deep learning are evolving AI in ways that will allow it to tackle a much wider set of problems, while continually improving through experience.

A key aspect of this more generally intelligent AI is that it will unlock new opportunities for humans and increasingly capable machines to collaborate more closely, enabling businesses to become more efficient and productive. Take AI-powered digital personal assistants, for example. With their intelligence embedded in every kind of interface — from fridges to cars — they are set to become the go-to search tool for businesses and consumers, and we’ll wonder how we ever managed without them. You could even say that Alexa is to the future digital assistant what the BlackBerry was to the iPhone.

We’re also likely to see AI become more widely used by enterprises of all sizes — not just the larger organisations that currently act as its global drivers. That’s because developers with access to open-source datasets and algorithms now build AI into more scalable and affordable business applications and products, thus helping to commoditise and democratise it. In short, the playing field is poised to become a lot more competitive, and businesses that don’t deploy AI to help them innovate in everything they do will be at a disadvantage.

The value potential up for grabs in this coming stage of AI development is immense. AI could double annual economic growth rates in 2035 by changing the nature of work and creating a new relationship between people and machines. The impact of AI technologies on business is projected to increase labor productivity by up to 40% and enable people to make more efficient use of their time.

However, successful integration of advanced AI systems into a business involves more than just automating business processes — it’s also about empowering the workforce to adopt new skills and ways of thinking. So, how will AI change the workforce, and what should companies do to ensure employees and AI work together to make the business and workforce thrive?
 

How AI will turbo-charge productivity

 

At the broadest level, unleashing the power of AI will allow the human workforce to be more productive. Let’s return to the example of the digital assistant we mentioned earlier. By continually analysing vast troves of data in real time, these supercharged ‘co-workers’ will be able to quickly grasp customers’ priorities and predict their needs. Brands that want to communicate with customers as quickly and relevantly as possible will take advantage of such AI-powered platforms to deliver highly nuanced, personalised experiences in the moment.

Deploying AI in this way will free the human workforce to focus on more complex, creative work. For instance, it might currently take a large company’s marketing team days to analyse data in a way that yields a fine-grained understanding of a target’s psychological dynamics — who they are and what they care about. But soon, even a relatively small business will be capable of simply setting its digital assistant to work analysing customer data in real time, so that the company can construct more powerful marketing messages in just a few hours. Working seamlessly with AI systems, their role becomes more about leveraging insight and critical thinking power with creativity, rather than being merely operational.
 



Using AI to complement and enhance - not replace - the human workforce

 

To ensure the path to an AI-enabled workforce is smooth, businesses need to change the way people perceive human-machine interaction at work. Securing the buy-in of all employees starts with encouraging an open mindset to ensure that people trust — rather than fear — the blending of human and machine talents within a business process. People need to be prepared to embrace the power of AI to extend their capabilities, reinvent processes and create better outcomes.

It’s also very important for employees to understand that this new approach isn’t about replacing people’s jobs with AI. While machines may take over tasks involving high-volume, routine work, they perform much less well at abstract tasks involving human capabilities like empathy, judgment, creativity, inspiration and leadership. For example, innovating and managing people will be almost impossible to hand over to AI.
 

How the ‘missing middle’ becomes a source of new jobs

 

Businesses must also ensure they can accommodate the new tasks, skills, and job categories that are likely to emerge. Research from Accenture, for instance, suggests that most of these emerging roles will be filled by people and machines working together in the ‘missing middle’  — a dynamic space in which humans and machines can operate as symbiotic partners, exploiting what each party does best and driving each other to higher levels of performance.  

High-level human skills such as creative and abstract thinking will become more important to the workforce, with new job categories that involve the ability to make decisions with abstract thinking and emotional intelligence.

For example, highly qualified trainers will be needed to teach AI systems how they should perform so that they make fewer errors and get better at mimicking human behaviors. ‘Explainers’ will be required to bridge the gap between technologists and business leaders, and to clarify the inner workings of complex algorithms to nontechnical employees. ‘Sustainers’ will need to ensure AI systems operate properly — as tools that exist to serve humans, making our work and lives easier.

Other ‘fusion skills’ will also emerge in the AI workplace of the future. For instance, in the past, technology education went in one direction: people learned how to use machines. But with AI, machines can also learn from humans. In the future, people will perform tasks alongside AI agents to learn new skills.

‘Intelligent interrogation’ will be another key fusion skill. People can’t simply probe massively complex systems or predict interactions between complex data layers on their own. They’ll need the ability to ask machines the right ‘smart’ questions across multiple layers.
 

Upskilling and reskilling to harness the power of AI

 

To win in this environment, it’s critical that businesses start to develop the upskilling strategies that can help employees change their proficiencies and quickly gain the necessary new skills to exploit the power of AI.

If companies want to avoid a persistent shortage of skilled labor, they will need to help their employees understand how to perform effectively in the ‘missing middle’. This also involves thinking about methods for providing skills development. Apprenticeships offering practical on-the-job training, in-house training programs for non tertiary educated entry-level employees, and partnerships with external workforce development agencies will all play an important role.

At the same time, workers will need continual retraining through lifelong learning programs if they are to keep up with evolving job requirements.

And if technology changes every few months, training and retraining programs will need to follow suit. Using new technologies like virtual reality can accelerate the speed and scale of training, and allow companies to attract new talent.

Businesses that commit now to help their workforce pivot to work collaboratively with machines in these ways are more likely to survive the coming AI disruption across markets and industries. They are also more likely to realise the massive opportunities this disruption will bring.

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