Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Workplace
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
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We spend a significant part of our lives in the workplace. For me, it is approximately 20 years and counting. During that time, I have grown professionally and personally. I started off my career in HR working as an intern at MTV Europe earning just enough to fuel my social life and to wean myself off my parent’s ever decreasing financial support. I look back at my career with a lot of pride. I was always determined to deliver, to do a good, high quality job and to climb up the corporate ladder, treading over whoever was in my way. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m a lot calmer, wiser, less ruthless, but I’m still determined to succeed, highly focused, and reliant on a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience gained over two decades. There is one thing that hasn’t changed much, and that’s my intuition. If you know me, you will know I have a huge interest in psychological types, the main attitudes being extraversion and introversion, the main functions being sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking.
For a long time, I fooled myself that I was an extraverted thinking type. Small things gave it away, my over-preparation of presentations at work, anxious about the questions I would receive during the presentation and worried about being unable to answer them. I love delivering presentations, being the focus of attention, developing visual slides, and the actual process of delivering a presentation. It fuels my sensation function but also puts my thinking function under pressure. I overprepare and literally bombard the audience with information. But sometimes as soon as the presentation started, I dropped my highly prepared notes and just delivered it in a spontaneous way, using my intuition function. These presentations tend to be more relaxed, more informative and engaging. I rely on my own instincts, watching the audience for their response to the presentation and adjusting it to ensure they understand what I am trying to convey.
My intuition has played a significant part in the drama that is my working life. It has helped me to progress from an intern to HR consultant within the space of a year of leaving university, to becoming a regional HR manager for a large global company and then on to business change and transformation, project management, management consulting, shared services, lean process improvement, psychological assessment and now, I’m training as a Jungian Analyst. I often “know” how to approach a situation or issue at work that I have never experienced before. I often “see” what needs to be done well before the mandate for change is written. It takes some sharpening of the delivery as the work progresses but my intuition is often right. The workplace has nurtured and developed my intuitive function. It has enabled me to develop a part of myself that probably wouldn’t have developed if I had gone into another field of work. Working as a consultant, your job is to solve problems. Some consultants rely on their thinking capacity, some on both their thinking and intuition, I relied on the latter but intuition has played a much bigger role. So, the workplace is a place where we can develop albeit for the organisation’s benefit, express our talents and showcase our personalities.
The Workplace and Instinct
My intuition is an expression of an instinct, psychologically speaking. It often expresses itself in irrational thoughts and actions which are not highly valued or understood at the boardroom table but I have learnt to express it in “thinking” terms mainly to satisfy the rational needs of businessmen and women. I use a sketch pad at work to “draw” my thoughts following a meeting and to sketch a way forward. Many of us will express our instincts at work in other ways. Some feel their way through work’s challenges, others think it through intellectually, others may notice what’s going on in their body and others like me will rely on their intuition. Sensation is my superior function so I am quite good at observing situations and going straight to the problem or solution, coupled with intuition, it can be a brilliant move on my part or a totally wrong move. No one is perfect. Extraverted intuitive types tend to make very good stockbrokers or financial investment advisers. They just “know” where the money is at and can express it very clearly. Instinct is expressed naturally, swiftly, with agility, intellect and wisdom. Our instincts drive organisations and businesses for success but in an ever global and competitive world, the drive for success is becoming even more demanding. Our instincts are under huge pressure by globalisation. The amount of information we have to process each day is overwhelming. Our instincts aren’t developing as quick as the Information Age so we are beginning to rely on technology to meet the demand. I certainly find that my work life is increasingly influenced by the demand for data and information.
We use the word “instinct” very frequently in our day to day language. Carl Jung said we speak of “instinctive actions,” meaning by that a mode of behaviour of which neither the motive nor the aim is fully conscious and which is prompted only by an obscure inner necessity. Jung further describes instincts as typical modes of action, and wherever we meet with uniform and regularly recurring modes of action and reaction we are dealing with instinct, no matter whether it is associated with a conscious motive or not. Instincts are a natural human impulse to certain actions, without having any end in view, without deliberation and without any conception of what we do.
Instinctive action is characterised by an unconsciousness of the psychological motive behind it. It is an abrupt psychic occurrence, an interruption of the continuity of our consciousness. Instinct is accessible to consciousness only through their results. My intuition which I described earlier is an outward expression of my instinct erupting into my consciousness as a sudden idea or “hunch”. Intuition is analogous to instinct, with the difference being that instinct is a purposive impulse to carry out some highly complicated action without conscious motivation, whereas intuition is a purposive apprehension of a highly complicated situation.
Does this all sound very psychological? Let me try to explain it in a different way. Our instincts lie deep in our unconscious and are outwardly expressed in a conscious or unconscious way. Hunger, sexuality are examples of unconscious instincts, they are natural human urges. The functions of sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking act as “vessels” for our instinctual urges towards conscious instinctual actions e.g. activity, reflection and creativity. Hunger is a primary instinct of self-preservation. Sexuality is a close second, particularly prone to conscious activity, which makes it possible to divert its purely biological energy into other channels. The urge to activity manifests in work, travel, love of change, restlessness and play. Reflection, included the religious urge and the search for meaning. Creativity was for Jung in a class of its own and highly valued by companies.
In an even “deeper” layer of the unconscious Jung said that we also find the a priori, inborn forms of “intuition,” namely the archetypes of perception and apprehension, which are the necessary a priori determinants of all psychic processes. Jung stated that a human being’s instincts compel him or her to a specifically human mode of existence, so the archetypes force his or her ways of perception and apprehension into specifically, human patterns. The instincts and the archetypes together form the “collective unconscious.” Jung understood archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and primordial images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behaviour on interaction with the outside world. They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures. The primordial image might also be described as the instinct’s perception of itself, or as the self-portrait of the instinct, or in other words, our creativity is the self-portrait of an instinct.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
What is AI? I would describe as cognitive technology which aims to mimic human intelligence and outperform human capabilities. I am really fascinated by AI. The Virtual Assistant on my Google phone is impressive and I wonder just how far this emerging technology will go in the workplace. I see a bright future where shiny titanium chrome robots with beautiful infrared eyes take over jobs leaving humans redundant! Just kidding 😊 My interest in AI is actually driven by a psychological question. What does AI mean for our natural, human instincts? If AI is going to replace our cognitive abilities, for example our instincts, what does this mean for employees in the workplace? AI can process information in a fraction of the time it would take a human to process the same amount of information. There is no doubt that AI is going to transform companies within the next ten years. According to Davenport and Ronanki (Artificial Intelligence for the Real World, Harvard Business Review 2018) current AI helps companies to solve business problems by supporting 3 business needs: automating business processes, gaining insight through data analysis and engaging customers and employees.
AI and Process automation
This involves the automation of physical tasks typically in back-office administrative functions like HR, Finance and Procurement using Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA is more advanced than current process automation technologies out there. The “robot” is a code on a server which acts like a human inputting and processing information from multiple IT systems. RPA is relatively easy to implement and has a quick and high return on investment. However, RPA is not programmed to learn and improve but it is very well suited to multiple back-end systems.
AI and Cognitive insight
Cognitive insight uses algorithms to detect patterns in vast volumes of data and interpret their meaning. The algorithms are developed in a Machine Learning application which aims to predict, for example, what a particular customer is likely to buy. Machine Learning applications are very data intensive and can be trained on a set of data after which time it gets continuously better at interpreting that data and developing insight. Deep Learning, a version of Machine Learning, attempts to mimic the activity of the human brain in order to recognise patterns. These patterns would usually by picked up by human instinct but Machine Learning does it much faster. Versions of Machine Learning can also recognise images and speech. However, Cognitive insight applications come with some limitations. They are typically used to improve performance on jobs only machines can do e.g. high speed data crunching and automation, tasks which are beyond human capability.
AI and Cognitive engagement
Cognitive engagement uses Natural Language Chatbots, Intelligent Agents and Machine Learning to engage with employees and customers. The applications address a broad and growing array of issues such as password resets, technical support and query handling. The application interacts with employees and customers using Deep Learning technology to search frequently asked questions and answers to previously resolved cases, questions, documentation and policy to come up with solutions or responses to employee or customer problems using natural language processing.
What does AI mean for our natural, human instincts?
There are varying opinions on how AI will change the workplace, because implicitly or explicitly, these beliefs will influence the way they develop the workplace of the future. Five schools of thought are central to this debate according to Mark Knickrehm (Artificial Intelligence, Understanding AI and Machine Learning, Harvard Business Review):
Dystopians: man and machine will wage a Darwinian struggle that machines will win.
Utopians: intelligent machines will take on even more work, but the result will be unprecedented wealth, not economic decline.
Technology optimists: a burst of productivity has already begun but is not captured in official data because companies are still learning how intelligent technologies can change how they operate. When companies do take full advantage of intelligent technologies, a leap in productivity will produce a digital bounty - creating both economic growth and improvements in living standards.
Productivity skeptics: despite the power of intelligent technologies, any productivity gains will be low.
Optimistic realists: digitisation and intelligent machines can spur productivity gains that match previous technology waves.
From my psychological perspective, I can see how our instincts in a workplace context may be replaced by cognitive insight technologies, however, this may be some time ahead in the future due to their current limitations. Right now cognitive technologies enable companies to:
Predict what a particular customer is likely to buy, if you use Amazon you can see this already at work
Identify credit fraud in real time
Detect insurance claims fraud
Analyse warranty data to identify safety or quality problems in cars and other manufactured products
Automate personalise targeting of digital ads, this is very apparent on social networks
Provide insurers with more accurate and detailed actuarial modelling
When AI progresses to far more advanced technologies, there is a risk that the natural expression of the psyche will be constrained. So, what happens if our instinct becomes “instinct” in the workplace? Not only do we lose our creative expression but we also lose an important aspect of the psyche’s individuality. Creativity is a necessary and valuable instinctual activity which can have a positive impact on our overall psychological health and wellbeing as well as promote organisational effectiveness. The risk of restraint on human creativity by cognitive technologies will no doubt lead to workplace stress and anxiety. The back office functions of HR, Finance and Procurement are ripe for the AI harvest. Those functions which continue to operate on highly traditional and complex administrative platforms could face seismic shocks when AI’s inevitable arrival comes. The further away the function is from any form of automation, digitisation or creativity, the greater the opportunity or business case to implement AI. It just becomes a no brainer. The companies which enable their employees to utilise their creativity in business administration functions will need to consider the human impact of AI on their workforce particularly in terms of job design, motivation and development.
HR in particular can become a very effective back office function by providing people analytics to support or enable better decision making. But many HR functions continue to operate with manual processes so the opportunity to take a formidable seat in the boardroom is missed. I would like to see the HR function become more creative, adaptable and reliable but the profession and professional body (CIPD) lack the aptitude for it. The function desperately needs a injection of people who have worked in business or customer facing roles for it to become a truly strategic back office function. A business focused HR professional would see the value in maintaining a repository of information containing past decisions made about people and previous approaches taken to solve complex people issues. AI could be used to analyse the data over time, providing insightful patterns and analyses about the management of people in the company. This kind of strategic thinking requires a lot human creativity, but in the future, this could well lie in the hands of cognitive technologies.
Pros and Cons of AI
Generally cognitive technologies are not a threat (yet!) to human jobs. AI could also augment our natural human instincts rather than extinguish human jobs. I see a number of pros and cons for cognitive technologies:
Frees up employees to be more productive and creative
Eliminates bureaucracy and back office drudgery
Better decision making
Augments our natural, human instincts
Replaces jobs carried out by humans
Massive job losses and puts people out of work
Phases out our natural human instincts
Ultimately, I suppose there will be an ethical question for us: what do we do with AI? Do we take the Dystopian, Utopian, Optimist, Skeptic or Realist position? From a psychological perspective there is a risk of losing touch with our instincts, a gradual loss over a period of time as AI advances. But I also think there is scope to make progress in developing human consciousness if we can augment AI to work alongside our own instincts. If there is to be any loss of instinct then my instinct tells me it will be in our capability to be creative especially in functions whose existence is based solely on high levels of administration and basic query handling.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this very long blog! I am hoping that over time, I will start to be a lot more concise in my thinking but right now, I am just enjoying what I am writing with no limits and letting the creative juices flow!