Podcast & Text Excerpts

Digitization of the Workplace: AI, Automation & the Workforce

Full Podcast & Transcript [excerpts]: Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, and their impact on employers in the near and slightly more distant future


Text excerpts from full podcast

Lively and insightful meet-up as Garry, Nat & Aaron share microphones putting perspective on the future of work, workplaces, and workers.

Aaron: Thanks for joining us for the Littler Data Talk podcast on this episode.

I’m really lucky to be joined by Natalie Pierce and Garry Mathiason; two people I’m really proud to call partners. Natalie and Garry collectively co-chair the firm’s A.I. and Robotics Practice Group. And today we’re going to be walking through some of their thoughts around artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, and what impact that’s going to have for employers in the near and slightly more distant future.

Why don’t we maybe level set for the audience a little bit. What is the AI and Robotics Practice Group and what’s it focused on. Can we start there?

Natalie: Gary is Chief Visionary Officer, if we had such title. To start, this group has been around now for six years and really as a reaction to employers coming to us and wanting to know what to do when you have to fit 21st century technologies into 20th century laws and regulations. And so, a lot of what we do is try and come up with best practice standards for employers given that it’s very clear that regulations won’t keep up with technologies.

And so, we do everything from vetting and validating exo-skeletons to do things like help employers who want to adopt biometric technologies, from anything from fingerprinting to wellness programs, things to monitor employee fatigue.

We also look at the legal implications of things like TelePresence and talent manipulation, and what impact that might have to change our laws and privacy concerns etc. So it runs the gamut that I would say probably where we’re seeing most need and most questions is around what your team helps us with Aaron, and that’s with the use of machine learning in everything from hiring to evaluations to promotions and, what needs to be done to make sure that the tools that are tested and ultimately adopted are fair for workers and not going to expose our employers to litigation.

Aaron: Garry, this is the product of your brain you know. Where do you land in terms of 2013 and in deciding that this was something the firm needed to do and what drove you to do it?

Garry: Well, it was very clear by 2013 that the technology had really accelerated exponentially and was having a major impact on the workplace. At the same time, we were dealing with laws and regulations that were often written or put into effect 50 years ago 75 years ago with no contemplation of what we would be facing.

So, one of the core objectives was to be a thought leader in this area and to really help map out the strategy of how our clients would deal with the transformation of the workplace and the employment and labor law issues that would arise.

Another purpose for the practice group was to look at the industry and the robotics and artificial intelligence industry, which is about a quarter of a billion dollars today, and is projected to be a trillion dollars by 2025, and the largest industry in the world. Not too long after that, almost every industry will have an A.I. plan or robotic aspect to it, and it will affect most if not all workplaces.

So with that, our group is merely the head of a sphere, so to speak, within Littler. It’s looking out into the future and bringing the entire firm with it. There are many aspects of this that go beyond this particular practice group and you are covering one of the important ones with data analytics.

We have THE WORKPLACE POLICY INSTITUTE looking at the effect of the robotics in eliminating jobs, but at the same time, at the creation of jobs and the need to reskill. So, all aspects of it, including the fact of the way we internally use artificial intelligence and robotics within Littler, especially artificial intelligence. For specific applications, I think Natalie has given you an excellent list; and we can talk about those in more detail as we go through some of the other questions.

Aaron: Yes, let’s do that. In fact, I think maybe a high level one which I think we’ve touched on a little bit. A high level one for me and I when I mentioned the fact that we hear people occasionally asking: Why does a labor and employment law firm concern itself with artificial intelligence and robotics?

Why should lawyers and executives and human resource professionals be concerned with artificial intelligence and robotics? And for me, maybe that’s sort of the jump-off spot, right? Because again, these are very loaded terms people think artificial intelligence and they immediately conjure images from 2001: [Space Odyssey] and The Terminator and Skynet, right? And I think obviously that’s not right.

But I think helping people understand the difference between imagination and reality in this space is really important, and that for me drives home why “this matters” because let’s talk about that just a little bit from your perspective.

Natalie: I feel like this is so critical not only for workforces which is where we focus but for humanity.

Not to sound overly dramatic, but what we’re really facing is this tipping point where we’re seeing that we still you know we’re far from General AI; we’re still at Narrow AI in its infancy, but the progress is surprising. Even to experts who have been at this for decades.

What we can do, and it’s really having that big data and applying the machine learning to that big data set where we’re seeing leaps and bounds; and I think the reason I say it’s not just workforces and it is humanities because we have to keep careful tabs on the ethics behind the AI and the development and staying ahead and staying competitive.

It really is important that those who do care about things like transparency and ethical applications of AI and keeping some controls around it, and frankly caring about what happens to employees, as we look to fill skills gaps, as we look to make sure that you know we don’t have so many people left behind.

We want to get the message out there that now is beyond the time that employers should be planning and they have such a key role in what happens to us as a society. And so, focusing on how the applications can help with doing skills gaps, with retraining employees, with making sure that these transformative technologies are developed. And that they are developed in a transparent manner and applied ethically.

It is key, and so we’re not going to just go to the regulations. And so it’s important to give some good guideposts to corporations who care, and to the government agencies that are willing to work with us, and in academia as well. And you know get one thing Gary start and we can talk about it. Years ago was just this Leadership Roundtable where we do precisely that is get collective voices together to really help create what we can expect the federal government to do in a timely manner. It’s just good guidelines.

Garry: AI is a broad term and it encompasses a number of different types of intelligence, but it’s really the use of technology and computers to do things that would normally be done by people. And we’re far from General AI. There’s a tremendous importance and role for people. And what I find fascinating is that with the speed of application in robotics and artificial intelligence that’s occurring, you’re having a significant effect, and you’re going to see it more over the next five years of layoffs and reductions in force. But at the same time, I predict, and most of our experts support, that there will be probably 50 percent to 100 percent greater growth in the need for people in the low current unemployment rate is just indicative of what we see coming in the future. And just about every CEO says people are one of their most important or their most important asset in an organization.

Please listen to full podcast here: Digitization of the Workplace

See also: Littler Special Report: Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Reskilling & Ethics – Fourth Revolution Board of Director Imperatives & the Chair’s Evolving Role

See also: Robot Fatigue, Reskilling & Jobs

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