SumTotal Blog

AI Insight: Why Robots Might Fly the Plane, But Not Bring Your Coffee

November 22, 2016

In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked a panel of 1,896 experts if artificial intelligence (AI) would destroy more jobs than it created within a decade. The group, which included Google’s chief economist and a number of MIT computer scientists, was divided, with 48% saying yes and 53% saying no.

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Since then reports about the consequence of AI have ranged from dystopian scenarios à la The Matrix or The Terminator, or the somewhat less fantastical but equally terrifying reality whereby the gap between the rich and the poor grows even greater. That not only will the working classes be decimated and left destitute thanks to machines taking their jobs and livelihoods, but so too will the middle classes. The rich will become a super elite group, very small in number and the only ones with some sort of future.

Neither vision is attractive. But both are gaining ground as AI moves into the workplace. A report by the Science and Technology Committee is very damning of the UK’s government action—or inaction—around this topic: “The government does not have a clear strategy on how to maximise AI and robotics for economic benefit, which could see millions of Brits losing their jobs as the use of automation increases.”

In truth it remains to be seen just how AI will impact both the workplace and the economy, but it does make good business and political sense for countries to prepare for this ‘revolution’.  But a recent HBR article proposes an impact not considered in either of the aforementioned scenarios. The authors ask us to consider the notion that AI will change how we value performance. They forsee AI’s impact as a complete transformation in how we evaluate value to a business, guiding decisions on who to invest in and who to replace with AI.

Performance management as we currently know it will undergo a seismic shift. HR will have to rethink its focus as companies shift attention toward pivotal roles rather than proficiency ones. It will in essence all boil down to this: what jobs add the most to profits, and what jobs can be eliminated and replaced with AI while maintaining or improving current efficiencies?

To demonstrate their point, the authors use the airline industry, and pilots and cabin crew in particular. Pilots are currently valued for their skill and expertise, while cabin crew are perhaps viewed with a different value. Most of us might assume that the ideal job to replace is that of the cabin crew, as they would be deemed to have a less specific set of skills; however, according to this article, that is not the case. Continued investment in a pilot will not exponentially increase their value to the business – however, thanks to the growing competitiveness of the industry, the flying experience is the real differentiator.

We are asked to imagine a flight where the cabin crew is armed with a version of Google Glass through which they can access customer data and personalised preferences. No nut dishes served to Charles in 3C given his allergy, but black coffee and a predisposition for inflight duty free. Early seating meal for Sarah in 2A so she can get to sleep quickly. That level of personalised service adds exponential value to your business—hence it becomes the pivotal role, the role with the greater value.

Now it is acknowledged that despite advances in AI not many of us are ready yet to board a plane captained by Wall-E’s cousin, but given the enormity and the scale of AI’s impact in the workplace, it does give one pause for thought.

We at SumTotal are very interested in understanding exactly how AI will change talent management, and we believe it is a discussion that everyone in HR should be getting involved in. We would like to hear what you think about this, and whether you see this as the new objective for HR? Share your comments below.

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