Artificial intelligence has taken a back alley to gain access to the global labor force. Many imagined an army of hulking robots, but today’s AI is much more ubiquitous in the form of sensors, connected devices, and integrated systems. Its effect on labor is less obvious, but it’s real: A report from Forrester predicts that robots will replace 6 percent of the American workforce by 2021.
The long-term repercussions of AI’s presence in the work world aren’t yet clear. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center found experts almost equally split on whether disruptions created by AI will ultimately lead to more jobs or fewer. What everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that change is coming.
This is something businesses in all industries will need to keep top of mind — no industry will be spared. That’s more a promise than a threat, however: Automation, connectivity, machine learning, big data, and a legion of other technologies racing toward maturity will impact — and improve — every office and factory in the world. Up to 44 percent of IT departments are already incorporating AI as a replacement for cumbersome workflows and as a defense against technology-driven attacks.
While AI’s advance may seem intimidating, it’s important to remember that humans bring to the table many valuable assets that can’t be replicated by robots. It’s true that AI can successfully and cost-effectively replace many tasks that paid workers are now performing, but it’s also true that huge categories of work cannot be trusted to robots.
That can’t be overlooked as companies begin investing in and relying on AI — customer bases and company fortunes are at stake when decision makers hastily discard the abilities of a human staff. Instead, leaders need to focus on those things robots can’t be trusted to do:
Develop an Engaging Culture
Company culture is instrumental to both how a company operates and how it appears. In the best instances, it permeates every internal decision and every external customer touchpoint to reflect a consistent mission and steady values. A positive culture is impossible to create with robots, and the impact that has on recruiting, marketing, and customer acquisition is palpable. Companies expecting to automate everything except the C-suite will have a hard time gaining ground in competitive, narrative-driven markets.
The eager rush to automate and outsource is one that Shawn Freeman, CEO of TWT Group, a company that eschews the typical IT support format to focus on people and relationships, knows well. “When I first started, I tried to do everything myself. But as every entrepreneur knows, that strategy can’t last long. I thought delegating tasks would solve the problem, but I soon discovered that even that wasn’t enough. I needed to be able to trust the people around me, and they needed to trust me back.”
Deliver a Full-Service Experience
Even with an army of chatbots and digital assistants at your disposal, it’s difficult to deliver the responsive, end-to-end experience that customers demand. Just consider that more than 80 percent of pay TV customers would prefer to resolve issues with a live customer service representative, not through digital methods.
And when it comes to delivering higher levels of service and support, AI will never have the mental agility and fundamental understanding of customer relationships that a team member will. Even in the midst of the digital proliferation, customers prefer to connect with businesses through human interactions.
Overcome Limitations to Expand Offerings
In truth, today’s AI is fairly limited in its abilities. Even the most optimistic projections for its evolution suggest that future AI will face significant limitations. These limitations will always confine AI to fairly restricted and largely discrete applications. That also means these technologies will fuel ongoing uncertainties about reliability, cybersecurity, downtimes, and accuracy.
Humans may be prone to errors and subject to fatigue, but they have drastically fewer limitations overall — and they can adapt to new demands. Many lamented the rise of the automated gas pump, begrudging its ability to sideline gas station attendants. While those jobs went away, those same gas companies hired people to do more sophisticated work to maintain those automated pumps, such as engineering and coding.
Automated gas pumps also enabled people filling up their tanks to grab a drink, leading gas stations to become convenience stores with clerks — providing more new jobs. And the cheaper experience lined consumers’ pockets with more money to spend, creating more jobs via all those products and services that consumers could now afford. Humans found ways to capitalize on the automation and evolve their own skills.
Apply the Insights of Experience
Machine learning has the potential to advance the capabilities of AI in truly exciting ways. But it’s a mistake to equate this kind of learning with the experience team members gain over months and years on the job. Humans are masters at identifying patterns and trends — subconsciously or not — making them quick to pinpoint issues.
They’ve worked through every conceivable pitfall and gained insights that only a human mind could fully grasp in the moment and apply later in meaningful ways. AI is no replacement for professional development and hard-won institutional knowledge.
The potential of AI is too big to dismiss, but it would also be a mistake to dismiss humans’ continued ability to contribute and add value in the AI era. The most successful companies will be the ones that understand the value of human talent and position themselves to leverage it in full.