Human Work in the Age of AI


Four WU Researchers talk about the influence of AI on human work in various facets

Artificial intelligence does not necessarily diminish the appreciation of the work performed by people. AI can automate certain tasks and perform them more efficiently, which will certainly lead to changes in the workplace, but human skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence, and the ability to solve complex problems will continue to be of great importance.

The dialog-based chatbot Chat GPT can produce texts like this in a matter of seconds. So why do we still need authors and writers? Career researchers do not believe that these professions will disappear, though the tasks that are required will change. The Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior at WU has taken a close look at the question of how the value of human work will be assessed in the future. Research associate Marco Rapp sees himself faced with new challenges as a result of AI: “Students are already trying to write their seminar papers using AI. We can’t say exactly how often this happens, but the universities must solve this problem. At the moment, we still don’t have any means of dealing with it.” So what do lecturers and examiners do when that happens? “I try to talk to the students,” says Rapp. “Usually they understand that it is their own work that needs to be assessed and they will resubmit their paper. If they dispute the allegation, however, I’m forced to grade that work.”

Active tasks in a world with artificial intelligence

Psychologists already established decades ago that active tasks are important for learning. If you only ever use the GPS in your car to get somewhere, you’ll forget how to read a map. In the same way, you will lose your ability to write texts in a foreign language if you always consult a translation app.

                                AI systems are designed for the past.

This principle can be applied to other areas as well. “If, for example, a human resource department uses an AI to pre-select the CVs of job applicants, it may end up sacrificing its core competence and possibly undermine the function of HR management,” Rapp explains. “That’s because AI systems are designed for the past. They evaluate CVs according to criteria that were successful two years ago, for example. But HR departments need to focus more on the future.” Meanwhile, lawyers are up in arms after a sensational study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that the legal profession could easily be replaced by artificial intelligence. Dentists, on the other hand, are much less concerned, as AI offers them numerous technological advantages, such as the ability to take laser scans of a patient’s jaw instead of having to rely on traditional plaster casts.

The human work behind artificial intelligence

According to a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), only around six percent of employees in high-income countries are at risk from automation. The proportion of employees whose work could be significantly restructured through the use of AI is around 13 percent. “Already during the first industrial revolution, people said that human labor would be marginalized. But that didn’t happen,” says Felix Diefenhardt, another researcher at WU’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior. “A lot of people believe that AI works without human intervention, but there’s actually a lot of human work going on behind the scenes.” For starters, a lot of jobs in the low wage sector, so-called click workers, will be required to tell an AI when it is right and when it is wrong. This is how you train an algorithm.

                               There’s actually a lot of human work going on behind the scenes.

As Diefenhardt explains, people will step in when the AI reaches its limits: “Employees will then have to pretend to be an automated chatbot. Obviously, these people will not be appreciated as much if they are perceived as mere computers and are only paid to perform a substitute task.” Another prediction, however, is that the 30-hour working week will be introduced across the board and that the use of AI could achieve the same level of output with less input from the human workforce.

Older employees and AI

What does the 50-plus generation think about AI? Studies in the field of career research show that generation and age have different implications and must therefore be distinguished from one another. The younger generation has grown up in a digitalized world and can navigate this world with greater confidence and ease, but they also tend to be less critical of the downsides of AI because they are more likely to take digitalization and AI for granted than the older generation. On the other hand, there are certain advantages that come with age: “Older people can draw on greater experience and are familiar with a broader range of options for how to design work processes, including the advantages and disadvantages,” explains Petra Eggenhofer-Rehart, a research associate at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior. In addition to the strengths and advantages, long-time employees also recognize the weaknesses and negative social implications of using AI. Eggenhofer-Rehart concludes that this makes it easier for them to “react to AI-related changes in job profiles in a level- headed manner and with a thoroughly constructive and critical attitude”.

The role of leaders in dealing with change

Marta Sabou, a professor at the WU Institute for Data, Process and Knowledge Management, is also convinced that the younger generation is more tech-savvy and accepts technology-related changes more readily. “In times of great change, it remains important for leaders to give their employees the feeling that they are still part of the company despite the ongoing transformation and that they can continue to develop professionally.

                                    React to AI-related changes with a critical attitude

Appreciating employees and their skills will remain an important motivating factor.” A recent LinkedIn survey found that some of the fastest-growing requirements in job postings in the U.S. are people skills such as flexibility and ethics. “Around 92 percent of U.S. business leaders believe that people skills – interpersonal skills, communication, and social empathy – are more important today than ever,” says Sabou.

[Translate to English:] Portrait Marco Rapp

Marco Rapp is a research associate at WU’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior. His research focuses on the digitalization of HR management practices and systems.

Portrait Felix Diefenhardt

Felix Diefenhardt is a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior. His research interests include the sociology of work and organization, sociological theory, and the digitalization of the workplace.

[Translate to English:] Portrait Petra Eggenhofer-Rehart

Petra Eggenhofer-Rehart is a research associate at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior. Her current research sheds light on career orientations, career paths, and career success.

[Translate to English:] Portrait Marta Sabou

Marta Sabou is a professor at the WU Institute for Data, Process and Knowledge Management. She leads a group of researchers working on emerging artificial intelligence techniques and their use to solve real-world problems.

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