The future of work: Can upskilling stop robots replacing workers?

Sarah Gilchriest, below, Chief People Officer of Workforce Learning, the group encompassing QA, Circus Street and Cloud Academy, considers how businesses can make sure their teams are well placed to benefit from the latest innovation step in generative AI through upskilling and training, and not left behind by developments such as ChatGPT

Robots taking over the world has always seemed a futuristic fantasy. And yet, with the latest developments of generative AI such as ChatGPT, some people are questioning whether it could become a reality before too long. There is concern that some skillsets and jobs could be at risk as these generative AI tools evolve, and there is no doubt that it is a game-changing technological creation with wide-ranging implications for businesses and jobs. But just how worried should workers be about the danger of being usurped by robots, and what steps can people take to make sure their skills are future-proofed? We have seen examples throughout history of innovation bringing change to the job market, with farming equipment and factories replacing humans for example, and so we shouldn’t be alarmed by the idea of change.

In my view, people need to progress beyond the thinking that these advances in technology will replace humans, and instead look upon it as an exciting opportunity to incorporate cutting-edge tech into our day-to-day work and to focus on new skills. Leaders should be thinking about how to make sure their team is trained properly so that employees have the skills required to work effectively alongside the latest AI developments, and are developing the skills that businesses will need in the future.

Concerns about the future of jobs undoubtedly stem from the rapid success of ChatGPT, the conversational AI phenomenon. The app of the moment, it is one of the most important developments in the field of AI to date, and will play a key role in an inevitable AI revolution. The developers have created a model which enables bots to better understand prompts so that even a basic human input can generate a reasonable output, with significant implications for the way in which businesses can operate. It can hold conversations, follow instructions, write essays, articles and poetry, and even create images and videos. Done well, generative AI could produce faster, more personalised customer communications based on historical data and customer interactions around the clock. Perhaps most attractive to business though is AI’s ability, with programming and machine learning, to process and sort huge volumes of data.

There is a case for arguing that this could have a significant impact on jobs in the future, replacing workers that traditionally specialise in these areas. However, rather than meaning that a business will become the preserve of just machines, I’d suggest that these advances can allow employees to do their jobs in a more effective and time efficient way. AI can be a tool to augment our own skills, while we automate the mundane and routine, and workers can use it to research, brainstorm and learn. It could help businesses qualify leads and answer common queries much more quickly, for example, and provide the visibility and insights needed from data for businesses to make better strategic decisions quickly.

The reality is that no current technology, including AI, can replace humankind’s capability of original thought, empathy and ingenuity. Inherently, any AI is trained only on pre-existing material, therefore it can only create new content that is similar to that work. This means that it cannot be impulsive or spontaneous, generate fresh ideas or invent anything, and human oversight will be needed.

People need to learn to work in a human-machine partnership though, developing the skills that businesses are going to need if they are to keep pace with the innovation that is happening, and so leaders need to be looking to future-proof their employees in this way. They need to have a decent understanding of the workings of AI, and the necessary digital skills at their fingertips to allow them to utilise the potential on offer. Far too many workers in the UK are not ready for the changes that are coming, with the World Economic Forum estimating in a recent Future of Jobs Report that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025 as adoption of technology increases. Data analysis skills, for example, will be needed going forward, with the ability to critically and rigorously evaluate the data that a robot might be able to provide.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

The benefits do not stop with the ability to make the most of innovations in AI. A workforce trained in a variety of cutting-edge skills is also much more flexible and resilient – people can more easily move between industries and it can be a key driver of innovation. The more people who can understand and use the latest tech, the greater the chance of new applications and consequently breakthroughs which create new industries. It also can free up time to concentrate on developing and using skills that machines don’t yet have – strategy, innovating, complex problem-solving, and skills that require emotional intelligence and empathy. For businesses, the commercial rationale is clear. A better trained team is more efficient, creative and effective.

We are only really at the start in the development of AI technology, and there is much further to go in terms of the benefits that it can bring to businesses. But truly unlocking this opportunity will require a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, helping each other do what they do best. Businesses must look to develop the skills of their employees alongside the technological developments that we are seeing unfold rapidly, making sure they are well placed to benefit from the opportunity to offload the monotonous and mundane, and spend more time on the exciting, creative and strategic. If not, the truth could well be that AI will not replace you, but a person using AI will!

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024