Diversity and AI in the workplace

Want to create a diverse and inclusive workplace? AI might not offer the solution you hope it could.

“It’s not just a question of creating a robot that can love. Isn’t the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?”

The dilemma posed by one of Professor Hobby’s fellow scientists in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence throws up all manner of pertinent questions of morality and ethics. The turmoil endured by the robot child David in the story as he vies for love and attention from his ‘parents’ is heartbreaking. It also asks the audience to ponder the dynamics of a relationship held between humans and robots, and the responsibility of creators in making sure the two can live, work and play in harmony.

It is a subject that has spilled into the workplace in recent years with the ever increasing use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in performing traditional business tasks. Spam filters, voice to text features, process automation, fraud detection, personalisation of news feeds, data analysis, and language recognition. These are just some of the functions we are asking AI to take care of in our day to day business operations. And the use of AI will only grow. According to a recent BCG and MIT Sloan Management Review report, 85 per cent of executives say AI will give their companies a competitive advantage, with 60 per cent claiming an AI strategy to be an urgent need for their organisation.

This rampant uptake in technology use comes at a time when more and more companies are proactively addressing diversity and inclusivity among their workforce. Having diverse and more inclusive employees, with people from different races and backgrounds, and with differing views and skills, is good for business. According to 2017 research published in Harvard Business Review, cognitively diverse teams solve problems faster than teams of cognitively similar people. There is also more scope for innovation and creativity to flow, reducing the risk of homogenous ideas coming to the fore.

Central to boosting diversity and inclusion is to acknowledge and remove the unconscious bias we all possess as humans, to open our minds and accept that people who do not look, act, talk or think like ourselves can effectively contribute to business success. Stereotypes, both positive and negative, sit in our subconscious. And that has an impact on our decision-making – which has historically contributed to unequal and non-inclusive workplaces.

Read: Why diversity is crucial for innovation

This is where AI might help. To take a simple example: To reduce admin burden, companies started using AI assistant technology to book flights, hotels and taxis. As the technology has become more sophisticated, they can be used to take minutes of meetings, for example, recording factual information, key decisions made and any actions. Yes, it is a simple and efficient way of distributing minutes. But it also eliminates the possibility that the information has been mis-quoted or presented incorrectly as a result of implicit human bias.

However, as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović says, machines function on the basis of what humans tell them. “If a system is fed with human biases – conscious or unconscious – the result will inevitably be biased.”

So, while we like to think of robots and AI systems as being non-human – and therefore unbiased, diverse and inclusive – it is not that simple. In fact, AI could “reinforce discrimination and prejudices by giving them an appearance of objectivity,” adds Mijatović, pointing to increasing evidence that “women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTI persons particularly suffer from discrimination by biased algorithms”.

Research has shown that, in the past, male job seekers were much more likely to be served up Google display adverts for highly paid jobs then female job seekers. A recent study by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency suggests AI is amplifying discrimination, not removing it.

Yes, robotics and AI are already making our lives better, both at home and in the workplace. But as David painfully realises in Spielberg’s classic, there is nothing like being real. The value of humans – in our creativity, our curiosity, our ability to care and empathise, and the way in which we can collaborate with each other – should not be ignored or underestimated in the face of the smarts and efficiency offered up by robots.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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