Why AI and robotics in service of our bio-psycho-social needs

Piers Bishop · December 5, 2018

Just recently the Head of People Analytics at the National Australia Bank pointed out on LinkedIn how much value people analytics will add when it ‘grows up’. In this view the analytics team in most firms is a toddler right now, but it will grow. As a grumpy teenager it will have the basics sorted out but will have trouble correlating HR data with business outcomes. However, when it is a mature adult it will be ‘the hub of all things data, insights and measurement in one place to help inform decision making and drive actions’.

This model of slow and lumbering change may look likely from the point of view of a large employer, but things are very different in the hotbed of progress that is the start-up or scale-up business. At the #thisishr meet up on Tuesday we heard how new companies in the disruptive technology sector are starting life as fully-formed adults with data coming out of their ears. Patrick Caldwell of FinTech disrupter Fundapps described their ‘tech stack’ of HR and communication applications, and it was hard to see what there is left for the human beings in the company to do – apart of course from trying to integrate and make sense of the massive amounts of data the tech stack provides.

This very third-world and rather recursive problem, of needing to find automated ways to analyse the data our technology automatically produces, is one of the main drivers behind the AI revolution. While we at WeThrive are slightly skeptical about some of the claims already being made for AI, we are investing in machine learning and analysis as we are certain it will enhance the already smart algorithms that drive the analysis and action planning in WeCoach and WeLearn. However, there are things we will not do.

The dark side to AI and robotics

As Edward Houghton, Head of Research at the CIPD, pointed out last week at the Access Group conference in London, it is clear that AI and robotics have a dark side. How that will play out we don’t yet know, but as I see it the problem is not just that they might collapse the jobs market as almost every task except plumbing is taken over by a machine; not just because they might create a master-race sub-species of cyborg-like enhanced humans who never die; not even because the machines will very soon be faster and cleverer than us in almost every sphere of cognitive activity.

My concern is simply that the creators of AI, and in time AI itself, will do things because they are exciting, or just because they can be done, without thinking of the implications for our species. Many could be benign – low-cost always-on attendants for our increasing numbers of frail elderly people for example – but when the academics have done their work and commercial outcomes become the main driver for AI and robotics development, the results may be less philanthropic.

The left-brain and the right-brain and why both matter

In The Master and His Emissary, a masterful examination of the divided nature of human thought, the psychiatrist and philosopher Ian McGilchrist shows how the left-brain – right-brain partnership makes our complex behaviour possible, but also how the left-side of human nature, which calculates the percentages and chases the profit, has come to dominate our lives. Please read this book.

McGilchrist intended the book partly as a warning of what might come if we neglect our wider nature in favour of the mechanisms and transactions that are the left brain’s only concerns, but when he wrote it he could not have foreseen the way AI is shaping up as a new, unbelievably powerful and potentially quite mercenary adjunct to the left brain – for that is what AI will be if its priorities are set by shareholders.

Even without AI, McGilchrist says that our precise, logical way of thinking is seriously distorting our thought and our lives, coming at the expense of wider vision and experience of the real world. AI is not yet as advanced as the press makes out, though, so there is still an opportunity to grasp the agenda and decide how we want to use it. So here’s our position…

The part AI and robotics can play

Humankind has a dual nature: part-thinker and part-based in the real world of fuzzy and imprecise emotional and physical experience. Consequently we have biological, psychological and social needs as well as cognitive ones, and we should not pretend otherwise.

We should use AI and robotics only in the service of human bio-psycho-social needs, and resist any temptation to make life more ‘efficient’ at their expense. AI and robotics have the potential to create a treadmill for our species that would make the worst excesses of production-line working and ‘scientific’ management look like a toddlers’ picnic, and we must resist that whatever happens.

WeThrive is already working on AI to make our service even better. This means improving the interpretation of results, automatically summarising free-text data, making our action plans even more useful, and providing even better-targeted resources to help managers do the key work of nurturing the people they look after. Will we go further? Possibly – there are many ideas emerging that might be very useful to organisations. But there is a line: any development that does not help meet the innate bio-psycho-social needs of the human being is out. WeThrive came into being to help people have a better experience of work – and, consequently, to improve productivity, collaboration, retention, engagement and all the other key performance metrics that businesses care about.

Employee engagement tools like WeThrive help create huge increases in productivity because people are less stressed and more able to get on with their jobs. That’s a win-win that serves both sides of the human being.