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July 12, 2018
Want to understand AI? Talk to people
By: Mamta Kapur​​

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes pervasive, it’s becoming clear that more uniquely human skills will be required of working people. But there’s only so much that quantitative analysis can do to explore the human aspects of collaborating with intelligent machines. So, move over analytics. Let’s talk to people. It’s time to apply ethnographic research.

For our recent report, Reworking the Revolution, we realized that qualitative analysis would be critical to provide a real and unbiased representation of how people are grappling with AI. So, in addition to surveying 14,000 people, we conducted in situ interviews with 30 employees in six countries. This research was effective in uncovering the first-hand attitudes, emotions, aspirations and perceptions of people towards AI.

Want to understand AI? Talk to people

Taking the pulse of excitement, detachment and fear

The interviews revealed that there is really no single experience or journey that defines worker attitudes. Excitement was palpable in many of our interviews, particularly amongst those who are using AI to gain deeper insights into their customers' behaviors and preferences and for whom AI has made working with large data sets possible. I think the excitement stems from AI allowing them to go beyond the limitations of human understanding. For instance, a drilling engineer explained how intelligent mapping technology helps him to work faster, more safely, and cost effectively because he can go straight to where the oil is rather than wasting time and resources looking blindly for where he's going to drill.

In some cases, there was a sense of emotional detachment, mostly in people who were convinced of the superiority of human intelligence. AI is acting as an enabler and they are not scared that it will make them redundant, which leads to a certain dispassion when they're speaking about it. They strongly feel that humans will bring important relationship building and creative skills to the equation that AI cannot replace. A vehicle integration engineer told us that he believes that AI cannot substitute his work in the next ten years as his work is not limited to car assembly. He also needs to revise and correct AI’s efforts.

This process requires working with various departments. Other workers we spoke to felt that AI interventions of this kind, however, are often siloed in their organizations. They pointed to the need for human communication and interpersonal skills to improve coordination between departments and boost the value of AI.

And, yes, we did see some fear, but much less than we were expecting. Some older employees who felt hurried or outpaced by the new skills that they will need were less positive about the impact of AI.

In an age of intelligent machines, the work we do will be more creative than ever, more reliant on emotional, social and reasoning skills. So, as more research is commissioned to examine these trends, it’s clear that we must avoid the temptation to rely on numbers alone. We must also explore human reality face to face. This balanced approach will be valuable to business leaders who need an emotional and rational analysis of the landscape as they make critical investment decisions.

You can find out more about our research and the recommendations we make in Reworking the Revolution

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