AI or artificial intelligence—the ability for computing devices to think, problem-solve, and learn from their work—is making headlines as scientists use the technology to hunt down potential COVID-19 cures and trends. However, scientific causes are just a small part of what AI is used for. On a daily basis, AI touches nearly every employee and every consumer across the globe, changing the way we work and play.
But first, we have to learn how to use it. Two years ago social media company LinkedIn launched two AI-related educational programs for employees. Dubbed AI Academy, the training program had two distinct courses: AI200, which was designed for the small cohort of technical employees such as engineers who used AI every day, and AI100, a two-day course for non-technical employees who didn't use AI, such as product managers, communications employees, and recruiters.
The program started as an in-person event and recently morphed into an online video presentation. In particular, AI100 helps employees understand the specific domain knowledge needed to manage AI-related applications in a business setting. So far, the program has been extremely popular and useful, says Souvik Ghosh, principal staff engineer and scientist at LinkedIn. "A lot of benefits can be had by understanding the potential of AI. By knowing what's possible, employees can make better, more informed decisions," Ghosh said.
While creating something at this scale might be difficult for some organizations, organizations should be thinking about how to teach their workers about AI, explains Prasanna Tambe, associate professor of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. This is especially important as research shows that AI is poised to change jobs across the board. For example, a 2020 Ziprecruiter study found that half of the U.S. resides in job markets vulnerable to AI automation.
"I think a lot of the perception of [AI] is somebody sitting down and writing code, and that obviously represents a mental barrier for a lot of people that didn't grow up with that kind of background or don't have that kind of educational background," he said. "Companies are getting around it by the understanding that you're not just trying to build or educate people to code but there's really a combination of digital literacy and soft skills that all people need to have, and that takes a long time to put into place."
Making AI Education Intelligent
There are several steps that HR executives can take to bring AI information to the masses, even while working from home, say experts.
School yourself. HR can't educate people about AI unless everyone in the department is all in on the technology, too. This means understanding what AI is, how it will affect (and benefit) HR careers, and what the various tools can do. "Leaders and HR need to upskill to ensure their digital skills and data fluency skills are ready for an AI-enabled workplace. Showing employees that they are upskilling motivates employees to learn new skills as well," explained Nicole Merrill, author of Punch Doubt in the Face: How to Upskill, Change Careers, and Beat the Robots (Publish Your Purpose Press, 2019)
Have the discussion with management. Once you understand AI and what it can do, it's time to broach the topic with senior level staffers and your IT department. How is your organization using AI today? Where do you expect to implement it? Has anyone thought about how it will affect the disparate roles within your organization? "I think there are emerging frameworks to help kind of think about what AI can do functionally, but how that fits into the organization is a harder question to ask, right? So you think about AI technology and what it can do. But then you think about the issues it raises in terms of ethics and legality and bias and so on," Tambe said.
Set the tone with employees. Software research firm Capterra recently surveyed consumers, asking if they had used AI over the past year. Only 38 percent said that they had, according to Brian Westfall, principal HR and talent management analyst at the firm. He said the figure is most likely much higher. "There's a lot of confusion around it, but when you ask [respondents] very tactile questions like, 'Did you watch a recommended show on Netflix? Did you take a suggested route on Google Maps? Do you use Siri?' A large majority of people do all of the above, even those that said they have definitely not used it. That's how companies should frame the initial discussion." It's up to HR to communicate the fact that AI is not scary, and it's more widespread and useful than most people realize.
Offer AI education. If you are using AI, every employee who interacts with that application should have comprehensive training, said Jennifer Walden, director of operations of WikiLawn Lawn Care, an online lawncare marketplace. "Give the employee ownership over it. They should understand all aspects of it before they're forced to rely on it every day. This way they'll be able to diagnose problems and know when to go off script and improvise. For example, our customer service professionals do use automated learning to glean information about customers, but they know it's not foolproof. They're trained well enough to understand when they should discard the AI."
While it may be difficult to set up internal AI educational programs while working remotely during stay-home orders and social distancing due to the coronavirus, experts like Walden point to a plethora of AI resources that are, in many cases, free or low cost, and easy to share and access. Merrill suggests encouraging workers to take online courses such as AI for Everyone on Coursera. Google, Microsoft, edX, Udacity and a host of other platforms have AI classes as well.
Also, don't forget how important it is to show rather than tell, said Igor Efremov, head of recruitment at Itransition, a Denver-based software development company. "It is necessary to find and share the examples of enterprises that have already gone or are going through similar changes for employees to see how their careers can change, and what steps they should take to master a new domain."
Dispel rumors and misconceptions. More than a quarter of Americans say technology like AI is very much or somewhat threatening their jobs. This is why it's extremely important to educate employees and show them that, although their jobs may change, it's unlikely that they will lose their jobs completely. And, in fact, AI can help improve their day-to-day work.
"The most important thing to do is help alleviate employee fears," Walden said. "The biggest [fear] is that AI will become advanced enough to replace their position. While this may be the case in some industries, it's doubtful for most, and you need to reassure your employees that learning to work alongside technology is only going to help their position."
Reward curiosity and ingenuity. Small business startup BeamJobs connects engineers with companies that are hiring. Only two of the staffers are technical; the rest handle marketing and sales. Stephen Greet, the company's co-founder, encourages everyone to look for ways to make their jobs easier and less repetitive. "One of our contractors had to manually go through jobs and tag them with the industry they were in. They came to us and said that it was taking about 15 to 20 hours a week and suggested an AI application that could do the tagging for them." BeamJobs implemented the application, freeing up the contractor to focus on talking to clients and brainstorming about new services. "You have to make employees understand that AI isn't taking away jobs; it's helping to take away mindless tasks that should be automated," he said.
Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.