The future of HR
06/11/2017

7 challenges of robotics and AI in the workplace

In the past, the primary aim of robotics used to be to automate manual tasks. Nowadays, however, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) go hand in hand with employees in the workplace, and they are becoming essential in helping us to do our day-to-day jobs efficiently, explains Juan Staes from delaware.

Current trials

“The new pension legislation means that people are now expected to work until the age of 67. We’re noticing that some companies are keen to give their older employees a helping hand, especially if their work is physically demanding. There are currently a number of trials involving exoskeletons, for example: suits that help to make the work more bearable. Wearing such a suit can enable a warehouse operative with back problems to still do things like lifting heavy boxes.”

“The Belgian market is also trying to stimulate intergenerational work, and virtual reality (VR) can be a useful tool. Imagine a situation in which a technician with 40 years of experience is no longer physically fit enough to visit a job site in person; his younger colleague is, but lacks the necessary knowledge. VR enables the two of them to work together. The on-site employee puts on a virtual reality headset, and the more experienced colleague watches the live video stream from the comfort of his office and is able to give precise instructions. Various trials are underway in that area too, and it’s a perfect example of how people and technology now go hand in hand.”

“In less than ten years from now, we won’t be able to imagine a world without robotics and AI! And that will give rise to various issues, because it has an impact on every aspect: legal, insurance, education and training, job descriptions...”

Opportunities

Juan Staes sees many more opportunities besides these: “Within the HR department, for example. More than half of all enquiries received are routine questions. It’s perfectly feasible to implement a chatbot application – a virtual assistant that utilizes artificial intelligence to understand questions and formulate appropriate answers. You already come across them on various e-commerce platforms when you’re searching for specific products. As a concrete example: if an employee has just become a father for the first time, he will have a whole host of questions – what do I need to do exactly, which forms must I complete, etc.? But other routine tasks could also be automated.”

“AI could also be used in the recruitment process. The company’s own database often contains a lot of information. AI could take that into account to predict which candidate would be the best fit with the organization simply by taking an in-depth look at the candidates’ online profiles. The technology is already available. The only question is how long it will be before it is also used in Belgium, especially by smaller companies, and of course whether we’re not crossing the line in terms of what is permissible under privacy legislation (GDPR) and business ethics.”

7 challenges

We undoubtedly face a number of challenges related to robotics and AI in our country, according to Juan Staes:

1. No Dutch: “It’s not always easy to apply things in a Belgian context because leading suppliers don’t include a Dutch language option. In fact, Dutch isn’t even in the top 20 of possible languages. That makes machine learning very difficult.”

2. Legal aspects: “If something goes wrong with a robot, who is liable?”

3. Change management: “We’re in the midst of a culture shift from physical labor to intellectual work. AI and robots have had a bad name for a long time – for taking over people’s jobs – but that’s really not the case any more. In fact, they support faster, more efficient and more substantiated decision-making, such as by rating suppliers – just like we already do with holiday resorts and accommodation on Tripadvisor.”

4. Ethical aspect: “In theory you could also do the same thing in the workplace by screening people like consultants and job applicants before actually inviting them in to see you. The question is whether that’s actually allowed, not only in terms of privacy but also ethics. How far can – and may – you go?”

5. Learning on the job: “Working with an exoskeleton, or with robots or AI in general, has a major impact on people’s on-the-job learning and training. You need to give that sufficient consideration too.” 

6. Acceptance: “People tend to be quick to have a feeling of ‘Big Brother is watching you’! Broad acceptance of new technology in the workplace is only possible based on good communication and a carefully managed transition.”

7. Willingness of HR: “Huge progress is being made in the area of technology, AI and robotics. HR must be ready and willing to not only work with it but also to embrace it. It’s essential to involve the business in the discussion. Furthermore, whereas HR is currently using technology for mainly administrative purposes – to check and follow up on things – people really need to think about how new technology can play a practical role in the workplace. In other words, they must consciously focus on it and take a proactive rather than a reactive approach.”

Keen to know more?

Are you curious about what else the future holds for HR? During Wolters Kluwer's 'The Future of HR' on November 28, you will learn all about the very latest evolutions and you’ll hear presentations by numerous interesting speakers. At the conference, Juan Staes will go into more detail about how robotics and artificial intelligence will affect the HR role.

Author: Audrey Van den Bempt (Wolters Kluwer). You can connect with Juan Staes on LinkedIn