Is technology really enhancing the world of work?

AI is looking good for productivity, but will it be good for all of society? Amanda Mackenzie reports

The digital economy currently creates jobs three times faster than the rest of the economy, and estimates suggest that artificial intelligence (AI) could boost productivity by 25 per cent by 2035. Embracing technology will create significant positive change, such as innovations that offer better access to healthcare and education, but there is a dilemma emerging in our response to this brave new world – not everyone is equipped to benefit equally.

With the digital giants of Silicon Valley in the spotlight over data privacy transparency and the nature of employment through the gig economy, the ethical issues of technology and their manifestation in business are being discussed more every day.

A recent House of Lords select committee on AI concluded that “all citizens should have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside artificial intelligence”. It’s about time we thought about what “alongside” really means, and take action to stop communities who are already struggling being left further behind.

Business must consider how we make sure we’re training young people for jobs that don’t yet exist. One company working on this is Samsung with its Digital Classroom, which provides interactive whiteboards, tablets, PCs and digital cameras to boost technology skills in schools. The programme has led to improvements in the digital skills of 86 per cent of the participating students and a boost in their collaboration and creativity.

Technology should also reflect human values, correcting for unconscious bias, so as not to further entrench gender or ethnic discrimination – for example, in recruitment that uses AI to screen candidates.

Business needs to balance the “always on” culture by ensuring employees have time to rest and recuperate, helping staff maintain good mental and physical health. And we must tackle the environmental impact of our ever-increasing reliance on these technologies, as well as track global supply chains to stamp out human slavery and trafficking.

“Business must consider training young people for jobs that don’t yet exist”

We need greater emphasis on learning across generations, supporting older workers to stay economically active for longer, as the over-50 population is set to grow. It’s estimated that there will be 800,000 people working aged 50 to 64 and a decline of 300,000 individuals aged 16 to 24 between 2017 and 2022.

In addition, let’s consider people’s secondary skillsets. Skills in languages or filmmaking might not fit within each person’s job description, for example, but they can be very useful and business will need to retain talented people in order to compete in a global market, whatever their age.

AI is not simply going to replace humans. If we get this right, increasingly technology will enhance the world of work, complementing humans in a workplace. Xchanging, a business process outsourcing company working in insurance, introduced automation to handle repetitive and low-value tasks that its staff were less keen on doing. Consequently, these employees were able to move to more interesting roles. In some cases, people were retrained to move into roles managing the robotic processes, and the company has seen dramatic reductions in processing time, down in some cases by as much as 90 per cent.

These issues and more are being raised as part of our Brave New World project, enlightening the whole business sector to look at the unintended consequences of the digital revolution and not just what it means for the bottom line.

As the Prince’s Responsible Business Network, Business in the Community is currently working with companies from the FTSE 100 who are leading the way in considering the impact of rapid transformation on employees, customers and the community.

If business can lead and take action in the boardroom to mitigate the potential negative impact of technology, then by working together we can make sure this brave new world works for everyone.

By Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of Business in the Community.