The Ethical Dimension of AI; What to do when your employee is replaceable

The proliferation of increasingly sophisticated AI and VR technologies has brought with it a tsunami of investment in start-ups, particularly in London. However, under the guise of well-intended excitement, a myriad of ethical complexities casts a shadow. At the centre of these complications, Host recognises the primary focus needs to be on diversifying the workforce to mitigate the dangers of workplace automation.

According to Juniper Research, AI Venture Capital funding has increased nearly 600% between 2010-2015, with 2016 touted as the ‘Year AI came of age’ that number will be much higher. Silicon Valley is where the largest sums of money are passed around; firms such as Khosla Ventures and Greylock Partners are heavyweights in AI investment. All this money leads to one summary; AI is the fastest-paced sector of technology currently. With such technology advancing to rule out human error in the workplace, the back office is increasingly in danger of depletion. The majority of jobs in a firm, big or small, is in the back office, and provides employment for millions across the planet.

The Raconteur published a series of infographics on the concerns of AI in the workforce. Revealingly, service-based economies will be less depleted with only 35% of jobs at risk of automation (AI and robots) in the UK, and 47% in the US. Comparatively, 85% of jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, 69% in India, and 67% in South Africa are at risk. This is therefore not simply a Western issue, but significantly a Global one. Primary and secondary based industries, with the largest percentage of people living under the poverty line, are at risk, resulting in the need for international organisations (the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and various Departments of the UN) to take action.

Perhaps more worrisome are the results of the Raconteur’s study into the countries or regions that will most benefit and injure from the increasing automation of the workplace. Undoubtedly, the top two to gain were North America and Europe, with the most to lose being China, the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations), and Latin America.

This research compliments the current Government attempt to generate a modern, highly-skilled workforce. In the Industrial Strategy, Prime Minister May focuses on reducing unemployment through an increase in technological innovation, developing STEM skills and supporting start-ups. A more innovative and futurist policy has been long overdue, and must be adopted by both the public and private sector.

Life-long learning will become a central requirement for any professional in the private sector for the foreseeable future, as this will generate a larger number of highly-skilled individuals without a reliance on their niche area. This trend is already apparent; General Assembly, FDM and many other companies offer courses in digital skills, to keep the workforce at their peak level of productivity. Moreover, the increasing prominence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will continue to generate major interest from employers and employees alike.

Whilst life-long learning solves one key issue, it does not address the grassroots requirement to ensure young people are leaving education with the skills adaptive enough to survive a changing job market. The Government’s Digital Strategy published in March outlines the embedding of coding in the National Curriculum starting at Key Stage 1. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, there still needs to be an emphasis on bringing more children into computer science education. For instance, encouraging more young girls to enter into the subject which remains a male-dominated environment with only 17% of tech jobs filled by women.

A recent Gartner study underlined the importance for the CIO to strategize for future uses of technology to drive revenue growth, which undoubtedly alludes to increasing automation. Automation in the workplace is a daunting prospect for everyone to adapt to; employers, employees and Government, but it need not be if the trends emerging today are acted upon soon. With 31% of employees worried a robot or artificial intelligence will take their job, the anxiety surrounding the issue is prevalent.

For workforce adaptation to occur, employers need to encourage life-long learning from their workforce, but also phase in automation, to mitigate for the change in their employees lives. Artificial intelligence could make the world much more efficient, as long as we adapt our levels of efficiency too.