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Nesta FutureFest Forward: AI and The Future of Work, May 2018

June 7, 2018


We recently attended a Nesta event on AI and the future of workwhich was the second of the precursors to this year’s FutureFest Forward(scheduled for 6 and 7 July 2018). With 3 speakers and an MC, this event aimed to explore, and rediscover, how we will approach work in the ‘new world’ of increased automation and AI. Each speaker put forward their ideas and visions of what might be and then discussions were opened up to the audience in the form of a Q&A session.

Charles Kriel, the chair of the session introduced the topic with some thoughts about dialogue, Google’s digital assistant and how making bots understand us likely to change our language which means that AI will be shaping our discourses over the years to come.

The first speaker was Rachel Higham, Director of IT at BT where they have been using, developing and supplying AI for over 8 years. Their use has included scheduling field engineers’ appointments; managing nuisance calls as well as other cybersecurity areas and has led them to understand how careful we need to be in deploying AI. After all data analysis and machine learning are dependent on where the data originates so can easily spread bias. As customers begin to question this data and its use, organisations will need to become increasingly transparent around AI and its implementation. There is a growing need for all of us, not just organisations, to think about governance and the necessary ethical frameworks for the use of AI – as it’s rather like a child in terms of its ability to make decisions so these do need to be monitored. Clearly AI has huge potential yet brings with it a huge duty of care and issues around trust.

Dr Phoebe Moore, University of Leicester, was our second speaker and reminded us of John McCarthy’s definition of AI – the science and engineering of making intelligent machines. This indicates that, as development continues, machines will become autonomous and not require human intervention. It also means that robots have to learn continually, and create symbols, to help themselves understand processes by which the world operates whereas for humans the world just ‘is’. Nowadays data can come from just about anywhere and be digitalised so enabling technology to measure increasingly intangible things leading, in some cases, to human profiling. A recent International Labour Organisation report has identified risks associated with such people analytics where the use of algorithms and the automation of offices has led to an overall deskilling and the replacement of jobs. This is beginning to move into the area of non-routine jobs and the use of ‘big data’ to make judgements. Again we heard that ethical and related issues will need to be addressed.

Our final speaker was Harry Armstrong from Nesta who brought in some other topics and reminded us that there are other things shaping the future of work. These include, amongst others, demographics, globalisation and geopolitics. Alongside this we also need to find better ways of dealing with AI and ensure we bring aspects of foresight and futures into the debate, for example can we create sensible labour market intelligence. We also need to accept that automation is coming and will happen to us as ‘science finds, industry invents and humans conform’. One key point, though, is to remember that we have agency over these things and through high performance work practices, and organisation design we can have a huge impact on how the coming work disruption will affect our lives and structures. We will have to find ways of functioning in and out of work in such a new world and also find ways of dealing with possible mental health issues as work may no longer define us as individuals.

These three thought-provoking presentations led us into a wide-ranging Q&A session where we discussed privacy as a human right, the need for an ISO in the area of AI, the recent setting up of the Centre for Data Ethics, how we can become more transparent in the use of data and the difficulty of explaining how data is collected and used because, at the moment, this seems to be very much a ‘black box’ process. Other topics raised included the need for interactions with everyone who gives their data not just companies and governments, how we can value the ‘human skills’, whether we are looking sufficiently hard at the philosophical side of the issues and whether the acceleration of AI increases the divide between the ‘haves’ and have-nots’.

As you can see from this list of issues – which is not exhaustive! – the debate was extremely divergent and reached no particular conclusions. The session could probably have continued way into the night had not the prospect of a glass or two of something suitably celebratory been proffered. All in all a great warm-up for the immersive installations and inspiring talks planned for FutureFest Forward in July.

Written by Cathy Dunn, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

For nearly 30 years, SAMI Consulting  has been helping clients think about the future. We have undertaken more than 250 foresight and scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Our core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy, helping clients to understand key drivers of change and manage uncertainty.

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