A visitor looks through a VR gear installed on a new Samsung Galaxy S9 mobile phone, during the Mobile World Congress wireless show, in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Feb 26, 2018. The annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) runs from 26 February - 1 March and draws over 2,300 exhibitors to Barcelona, including industry heavyweights Samsung, Huawei and Nokia. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
JOHANNESBURG - Last year, research by Accenture and the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) posited that artificial intelligence (AI) had the potential to double the growth rate of the South African economy and boost rates of profitability by an average of 38 percent by 2035. 

This is great news for South African businesses of course, but an AI-dominated landscape brings with it multiple ethical and social issues, including the problem of a labour force that feels redundant and whose skills may be no longer needed.

AI will undoubtedly change the world of work, just as the Industrial Revolution did in the 1700s and 1800s. 

Certain jobs will become obsolete, as intelligent machines will be able to complete tasks quicker and more accurately than humans. New roles will also be created – jobs that we haven’t even thought about yet. AI will be the biggest disruptor the business world has seen in over two centuries. It is little wonder, then, that people are already starting to get jittery about the possibility of being replaced by, or working with, a robot in the near future.

Why we see AI as a threat

Neuroscience, which focuses on how the brain works, has some valuable insights into precisely why AI is perceived as such a threat by the workforce. As social animals, our desire to be part of a herd – in this case a company – is hardwired into our brains, an evolutionary remnant of when physical survival depended on safety in numbers. Any sense of social exclusion, therefore, is felt as a danger to our very existence, and our brain is consequently sensitive to this trigger in our social environments.

Feeling excluded is one of the five social triggers that is interpreted by the brain as a result of its central organising principal: to minimize danger and maximise reward. These triggers can put our brains into a threat or reward state that has an effect on our capacity to solve problems, make decisions and collaborate. AI is particularly threatening because it can be triggered by all five areas of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF ®). 

AI threatens an employee’s Status, as their value in the workplace and as a productive member of society comes into question. Certainty is no longer guaranteed, as the future is unpredictable and employees wonder whether they will even have a job in the next five years. With AI encroaching on the workplace, employees feel as though they are losing their Autonomy because they cease to feel in control and think that they may not have options. Their Relatedness is threatened as they believe that they don’t belong anymore and are not sure which group they may belong to in the future. Finally, a sense of Fairness is triggered in employees as they feel as though they may not be treated equally.

One of the worst effects of being in a threatened state is that people are not open to change because the brain has less access to long-term memory and its capacity to think rationally and make decisions is reduced. This is because the brain is in a flight-or-flight survival mode, and so does not prioritise these actions. People are consequently also unable to see AI as something that could allow them the space to be more innovative, explore a new career, or give them more free time. 

This brain state also affects the control of self-defeating behaviour; for example, an employee in a threatened state could stop being collaborative with their colleagues, procrastinate in their work, and have lower capacity to solve problems. None of this behaviour is conducive to doing business or ensuring a productive workforce.

Cultivating a growth mindset in employees

As AI becomes more of a permanent fixture in companies, employers should start focusing on fostering a growth mindset in their employees, so that they welcome the change that AI will bring, rather than fearing it. 

This mindset, pioneered by the work of Dr Carol Dweck, is based on whether employees believe that their abilities are finite or if they can be developed. If they do believe that their ability can be developed, then they will be inspired by the change and look forward to it as an opportunity to grow.

We must also remember that, with the dawn of the age of AI, human qualities become far more valuable. AI machines cannot truly collaborate and adjust their behaviour in relation to others’ actions. They do not have the same degree of social intelligence, and cannot become leaders. 

AI machines also lack business acumen and are unable to transfer their ‘skills’ from one industry to another. All these qualities, even in the age of AI, will still be a vital aspect of ensuring a prosperous society and thriving economy.

Entrepreneurship provides a solution

It is undeniable, however, that many South African’s jobs will become obsolete or change as AI becomes more of a permanent fixture in the workplace. The significant portion of SA’s workforce that is unskilled or semi-skilled will most likely be the first to be replaced by machines that will be able to do the work more efficiently. This will place pressure on individuals to change how they approach work and possibly to seek work in other sectors. However, this is no different to how jobs have evolved in the past. The introduction of more efficient farming technology a few centuries ago, for example, meant fewer people were needed to farm the land and so more workers were able to take up roles in other industries where there were labour shortages.

But with every door that AI closes to the workforce, another one opens – in this case, entrepreneurship. AI will make entrepreneurship an even more sought-after skill in the SA economy, as it focuses on innovation, provides employment opportunities, and has significant social impact. Entrepreneurship also gives individuals a sense of belonging, as being productive members of society provides Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and a sense of Relatedness and Fairness. People are able to elevate their level of contribution, they have more certainty and autonomy in their own work in an entrepreneurial setting, and can develop a more individualised sense of belonging by being able to gain as much as they contribute. This sense of belonging means that people are performing at their best, as they do not feel threatened by a change that may seem out of their control. 

Of course, in order to retain employees, it is not feasible to ask them to set up their own shops. However, as employers, we can look at the ways that we define and integrate current employment when the machines join us in the workforce. By allowing employees more autonomy and control in the way they do and view their work, we can put them in a better brain state, as it plays to their social drivers. In most industries where the impact of machines will become more prominent, this is already being done in the advancement of the gig economy. 

In conclusion, then, AI is definitely set to change our workforce in the next few decades, but not all these changes will be threatening. It is up to employers to ensure that their employees realise this by playing to the social domains that trigger the brain, so that every individual can continue to perform optimally, learn new skills, and work towards their future roles in stimulating our economy. If we are able to do this, we will ensure our brains will be at their best to face and embrace this change.

In a world that is becoming more mechanistic, it is our ability to be aware of our social surroundings that both sets us apart, and allows us to never fear a robot taking our job. 

Rob Jardine is Head of research and solutions at the NeuroLeadership Institute South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.