Artificial Intelligence in the workplace: tool, colleague… manager?

Ready or not, Artificial Intelligence (A.I) is already here – on our wearables and smart devices, in our homes, and, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, in the workplace.

Sophisticated and becoming ever more refined with each passing year, A.I. combines machine learning and analytics to do the massive data-crunching feats that are an impossibility for a mere flesh-and-blood brain. So, it’s not surprising that, according to McKinsey, A.I. adoption since last year has increased to 57 percent, up from 45 percent in 2020, in developed economies.

But before we get overwhelmed with statistics, not to mention, the implications for the global human workforce, let’s consider how workplace A.I. is actually being deployed.

This week’s interviewee, Jozef Balaz, is CEO and Co-Founder of the business prediction platform iERP. We met at last October’s Reflect Festival, as he was one of the speakers featured on the program. Balaz’s presentation “AI is my manager” was set in the near future, tracking a day in the life of John, a working professional in 2035. In this scenario, John’s workday was directly managed by A.I. – a foreshadowing of what Balaz says is the next chapter in our collective working lives.

Fast forward to 2022, and Careers Express caught up with Balaz, to learn, in technicolor detail, of the workplace changes Artificial Intelligence is ushering in. What follows are highlights from that interview.

What are the responsibilities and skillsets required of an A.I. ‘manager’?

“An A.I. manager will be methodical and precise. The key skills will be assigning tasks, providing things like bonus recommendations, and objectively evaluating personnel performance. As it continues to become refined, A.I. would be perfect in assessing and taking such workforce-related decisions.

“According to a survey done by Oracle, the majority of respondents expressed a preference to having an unbiased A.I. as their manager, especially in assigning tasks and evaluating performance.

“A.I. is specialized. It’s programmed to solve a specific problem based on available data. But there are still areas that are beyond our current cutting-edge algorithms, one of which is empathy, which will remain human in the next decades; empathy, coaching and personal growth.”

What are Artificial intelligence’s offerings?

“Today, A.I. can crunch large volume of data and find dependencies between the information.

“For example, an A.I. sales forecasting system can automatically detect the relationship between the location of a store near the sea and its sales, predicting whether sales of sunscreen or umbrellas will increase depending on the weather. Humans could do this, too – but not on the same, massive scale.

“A.I. can analyze much more data and find dependencies using tens to hundreds of millions of records at scale – something that a team of humans simply cannot handle.

 

“So, A.I. can be deployed in business for processes such as sales forecasting, detection of late payments, supply chain optimization, predictive maintenance – even analytics of user behavior on a specific webpage or use of pictures.

“And there is a significant change in affordability. Initially, this technology benefitted the few, like Facebook and Google, whereas, today, A.I. is available with a subscription fee of 10-15 euro per month, even for small- to medium-sized businesses.

There’s been both optimism and concern about A.I. in the workplace. How does its use impact companies and their workforce?

“The impact is significant. I always say: A.I. is like your second employee with 20 years of experience that you can train in off-hours.

“A.I. can predict how much you will sell so that you can manage your supply; it can remember the consumer and use a personalized approach; it can predict peak demands for service and allocate resources. As a result, companies become ‘just in time, more efficient and personalized interactions with customers.”

Which areas of traditional business operation have yet to benefit from Artificial Intelligence?

“There are certain examples in which A.I. could decide in scenarios where ‘we’ as a society are more cautious.

“In H.R. processes, for example, today there are algorithms filtering candidates, but not choosing which candidate to hire, as there is a high risk in employing automatically.

“Another example is the Apple watch. There is an A.I. algorithm constantly running, analyzing accelerometer data, and, if it detects the user has fallen, it can automatically call for assistance.”

One of the exciting and, at times, even disturbing aspects of A.I. development over recent years is its capacity to express senses that are more human than machine. We’ve seen examples of this with Sophia and, more recently, Ameca. Do you believe A.I. will eventually replace customer-facing roles entirely? Or are there are still some things better handled by humans?

“Personally, I believe in 15 years, the majority of customer-facing roles will be replaced by A.I. As we are progressing in the digital transformation of the world, they could be in the form of a chatbot or as part of the Metaverse. 

“So, in the workplace, there will be a collaboration between robots and humans, which offers an opportunity for luxury brands to provide a ‘white glove’ human experience as an additional selling factor.

“Consumer brands would have A.I. customer-facing roles, with large volumes of goods or services dealt with by Artificial Intelligence.”

Paint us a more detailed picture of what the hybrid human-A.I. workplace will be like.

“Currently, A.I. is at the ‘recommendation’ stage. In the business environment, you may already see in your company system a number; behind that number, the A.I. algorithm will make predictions, such as which consumer will buy next. Imagine that the machine will give an 85 percent probability that X consumer will buy Y product. This is creating pressure or opportunity for the workforce to work with these probabilities.

“Next, A.I. will be able to take decisions: hiring decisions, decisions about product purchase… this second phase is still years away, but will bring with it additional challenges.”

Our Careers Express listeners are typically working professionals who are keen to up-level their own skills. How would you advise them to prepare for the A.I.-human workplace?

“As I see it, there are two opportunities. Firstly, there are completely new job types that A.I. itself is creating. For example, there is a requirement that human analysts prepare data sets for algorithms – these can be by subject-matter experts from all the fields and activities that A.I. is trained to utilize. There is also another job type, the ‘A.I. Explainer’, who would be needed to interpret results from algorithms, and put them into a more human, understandable form.

“Secondly, A.I. is accelerating the rate of change, so working professionals need to keep up with their entrepreneurial skills. I worked for more than 15 years in a corporate environment, so I know how much energy it takes to unlearn corporate lingo and unlearn the way of thinking that corporates are putting into our minds.

“I would like to reiterate that A.I. is not something in the future. It is happening now – so don’t expect to experience the sudden appearance of A.I.. It will continue to be a slow and methodical process as algorithms are introduced into more job activities. 

“Personally, I see this transition or revolution, as an opportunity to work less, as a society, and do more things that we love to do.”