Generative AI

Train employees to work alongside AI, don’t replace them with it, two AI ethicists say

Tech leaders are talking about investing in AI to boost productivity after months of layoffs.
article cover

Alyssa Nassner

· 5 min read

Our fears of a dystopian sci-fi workplace where we report to work only to find a robot drinking our coffee might still be exaggerated. But on the heels of months of layoffs, prominent tech leaders have been warming to the idea of using AI to boost productivity while simultaneously cooling down hiring efforts.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna told Bloomberg this month the company expects to pause hiring or rehiring for 7,800 roles that could potentially be replaced by AI. IBM laid off 3,900 workers in January, and the final tally might be closer to 5,000, Bloomberg reported. However, the firm has added to its workforce overall, hiring 7,000 employees in “higher growth areas.”

Alphabet and Google CFO Ruth Porat announced on an earnings call last month that the company would be “slowing the pace of hiring in 2023,” and also “using AI and automation to improve productivity across Alphabet.” The phrase “AI” was mentioned 52 times during Alphabet’s call, according to the transcript. Google laid off 12,000 workers in January, and a company memo in March mentioned “incredible investment opportunities to drive technology forward — particularly in AI,” Insider reported.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned AI as a way to aid output on his company’s Q1 earnings call, saying, “I expect us to focus on…delivering AI tools to improve productivity and removing unnecessary processes across the company.” Meta laid off 11,000 employees last November, with more reportedly on the way, a year after pouring billions into the construction of the ill-fated metaverse.

Neither Google nor Meta responded to email requests for comment.

AI ethicists said that despite the statements, society is not yet on the precipice of global workplace upheaval wrought by generative AI. But as intrigue about ChatGPT and related tools swells, organizations need to make a conscious effort to invest in workers through upskilling, while stronger union protections could mean more job security, Benjamin Lange, an AI ethicist and visiting researcher at Google, explained to HR Brew.

“We need to ensure, from the regulator side, mechanisms to better protect the workforce and unions in general, and we need to invest more in upskilling people…so they’re better equipped to fulfill the new jobs that will be created through AI.”

Rather than have workers replaced by an influx of new technological capabilities, Tom Davenport, professor of information technology management at Babson College, said, “You’re [a] much better employer if you are helping your people think about what they can do to add value to AI, and to work alongside it.”

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.

Fear of the bots. Tech industry layoffs began well before the emergence of consumer-facing AI tools and the surge of viral hype that surrounds them. But some workers have expressed concern about the use of AI in the workplace, and an April Goldman Sachs report estimated that 300 million global jobs could be fully automated by generative AI. The fear seeps into areas beyond tech: Striking TV and film writers with the Writers Guild of America seek to ban the use of AI in writing and rewriting scripts—a proposal rejected by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, according to a list of WGA proposals.

Fear of AI in the workplace may not be entirely unfounded. A recent study from researchers at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University sought to match job skills that most closely align with the capabilities of the large language models used by generative AI. The researchers found the fields most correlated and potentially at risk were “legal services and securities, commodities, and investments,” while telemarketers and post-secondary teachers in history, literature, and foreign language were the top occupations threatened.

Hype vs reality. Big tech leaders’ remarks aren’t alluding to a master plan to replace humans with machines, Davenport said. “I don’t think there’s a real causal link between the technology and the layoffs,” he told HR Brew.

To alleviate worker fears, organizations can prioritize training, Davenport said. Challenges may arise in this area, particularly when technology is evolving at such a rapid clip. “Nobody was predicting what we’re doing with generative AI even six months ago,” he explained. He pointed to an upskilling campaign at the consumer goods multinational Unilever, which he said followed the thinking of: “We can’t figure out exactly how your job needs to change, [but] we can provide a lot of different materials for you to learn various new skills, and maybe some frameworks that might help you think about how your job will be affected.”

Traditionally, skills need to be fine-tuned as new technologies are brought into the fold, and the generative AI revolution is no different, said Lange. Organizations need to emphasize “adequate resources to upskilling certain workers as the shift in the economy occurs.”

After all, learning how to work harmoniously with AI may mean that bots are the ones that make the coffee.—SB

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.