Andrew Cross: Employers must address role of AI in the future workforce now

Andrew Cross

We are on the cusp of an era where automated processes and machine learning will profoundly change how businesses operate.

It is virtually impossible to underestimate the potential transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. The ability of IT systems to process vast amounts of information, to ‘think’, infer meaning from patterns and to learn without reprogramming is exciting, but unnerving.

AI will, one day soon, be able to perform a variety of jobs, from data entry to insurance underwriting. The financial benefits of this will, in some cases, be enormous, so it is understandable that business leaders are keen to grasp how it can work for them.

However, the transition to a more automated future will also raise some fundamental considerations. Many high-routine and low-skill job roles could disappear over the next few years, and managing this change to the workforce smoothly will be a challenge.

The government’s recent public consultation into the potential impact of AI is proof enough of how seriously the technology is being taken. This will identify which job types are most likely to be affected, if there is enough support available and what actions the government should take.

The backlash against Southern Rail when it tried to remove guards from trains was widely publicised; clearly, any decision that will directly impact employees, such as introducing AI, needs to be fully thought through and handled carefully. Communication will be paramount: with employees, with regulators and with trade unions.

Planning will also be vital. A business must consider how its workforce will be affected and where traditional forms of re-organisation, such as creating new job roles, will need to be implemented. In due course, upskilling employees will need to take place for those who will move on to supervise AI systems.

The key will be understanding how the transformative power of AI systems and the experience and creativity of human beings can be matched to dynamic effect. One can continuously build on the other in an ongoing cycle of understanding of what is possible, what is wanted and what is needed.

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The AI revolution is coming and it is vital that businesses start preparing now. Decision makers should seek to quantify the impact on their current workforce, balance this against the benefits of automation and implement a smooth transition. They should also understand that things will continually evolve and have an ongoing understanding of what is changing and its impact on the running of their business.

Andrew Cross is an employment partner at independent legal practice Brabners