The Milk Bar Meet Up: Artificial Intelligence and Disruption in the Workplace

The Milk Bar Meet Up: Artificial Intelligence and Disruption in the Workplace

19 May 2017

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The very thought of Artificial Intelligence infiltrating the workplace can strike fear in the hearts of those who are convinced their jobs are at risk. My own natural curiosity at the thought of a robot workforce often conjures up images of a world reminiscent of Blade Runner or the stormtroopers from Star Wars.

So, when an opportunity came up to attend The Milk Bar Meet Up, for a seminar which promised topics such as Man Vs Machine and Disruption in the Workplace, I could hardly say yes quick enough. The subject absolutely fascinates me – not least because I’m convinced we’re all getting upset over nothing.

The morning started off with plenty of tea, coffee, hot rolls and biscuits. I have no idea if they were made by humans or robots, but they tasted just fine.

Proceedings were opened by Matthew Haggs, a post-doctorate from Glasgow University. He started off by referring to ‘machine intelligence’, because that seems less scary than the ‘AI’. He spoke about a vision for businesses wherein machines where simply there to assist humans – not to take over. It’s all about adding value to a business and improving upon customer service: Automation can help with this.

Haggs also spoke about work and data complexity, i.e. how complicated is a task and how many variables are there. For example, creative writing is not something that can be ‘learned’ from rules, but putting a customer through to the right phone number is. There are also certain jobs that contain an element of risk – such as a doctor diagnosing a patient – that stem from human subjectivity and experience, not learned data.

Essentially, he spoke of a future wherein people are not being replaced; they are simply using new technologies to improve upon existing productivity and services. He also pointed out that people are creeped out by AI that looks and sounds ‘too human’ – so don’t be expecting a machinated clone of yourself any time soon.

The next speakers were Emma Reid and Cathy Donald of Edinburgh employment law firm, Ergo Law. They began by saying that industrialisation and technological developments have always frightened workplaces – think about the invention of the Internet and email. There are lots of companies, such as Uber, Netflix and Air BnB, that simply didn’t exist anymore but whom we now all rely on.

The world changes, and we tend to move with it. Those who don’t – and this includes businesses – get left behind.

However, they presented a slightly different case for the legal world. They cited the example of a witness giving evidence at a tribunal. A human would be able to pick up on non-verbal cues or a wavering voice; acting as flesh-and-blood lie detector. Would a machine be able to do the same thing? Machines are taught in a black and white manner; they rely on learned data and are unable to pick up on human emotion.

They explained that the services their clients value – such as patience and understanding – are distinctly human. (Although, they did admit that their new office software is able to do some of the tasks they would traditionally rely on a PA for.)

Certain professions, such as law, will always be a little uncomfortable and a little behind on tech. The question is, can they afford to be? Potential customers already do their banking, shopping, house hunting and job searching through an app. It takes minutes. That expectation of speed and efficiency is then applied to other services.

Think about how the modern job search has evolved: We look on job sites and apps, we fill in forms online, we email in our CVs. Some people even interview through Skype.

The trick is not to be afraid of AI, but to embrace it. How can we learn to use automation to improve workforces for good, not to necessarily facilitate redundancies? It should be about empowering the user.

The Milk Bar meet up was incredibly interesting, and will no doubt provoke a lot of debate in workplaces of all sectors of industry.

Just maybe ask your work colleagues if they’ve ever heard of the Turing Test …





Written By Mary Palmer


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