Studies show that artificial intelligence (AI) could boost the economy and create more jobs than it eliminates going forward. Thousands of startups focused on applying new AI innovations and machine learning capabilities have sprung up around the world, and there is no shortage of investment capital. The economic opportunity is akin to the gold rush days of the 1800s.
AI’s biggest contribution to the workforce could be its ability to augment human productivity by eliminating the routine and repetitive aspects of our jobs. Unlike personal digital assistants and other previous productivity technologies, AI has the potential to greatly assist with complex tasks while tackling lower-value or tactical functions entirely on its own.
But this raises an important question: If AI is that powerful, why not use it instead of paid employees?
Contrary to the doomsayers, AI (which is inherently artificial) cannot completely replace the verbal and nonverbal communication capabilities of human workers. People continue to own strategic and complex task assessment and production. AI can act as a virtual assistant and serve as an employee’s eyes and ears, but it cannot recreate the experience of in-person meetings, nor is it able to match a human’s level of creative and critical thinking.
That doesn’t make AI any less of a boon. When the most arduous job requirements are handled by AI, more employers will be free to consider a concept already embraced by many forward-thinking organizations around the world: shorter workweeks.
Could AI Cut Our Time at the Office?
The best of AI is yet to come, so there isn’t much data proving how effective it could be in reducing our average working hours. However, we do have at our disposal numerous case studies highlighting the various benefits of reduced workweeks.
For example, Microsoft Japan saw its productivity jump nearly 40 percent when it experimented with a four-day workweek. When New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian tried a four-day week, employees reported a reduction in stress and an improvement in job satisfaction, all without sacrificing productivity. Meanwhile, companies like Aloha Hospitality and Shake Shack hope to attract and retain more qualified talent by introducing shorter workweeks.
All of this suggests a four-day workweek is not only attainable, but also actively beneficial. That said, not every company that has given it a try has found success: Portland-based Treehouse, which once used its shorter workweek to recruit new talent, went back to a five-day schedule after laying off a couple dozen employees in 2016.
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Was the return to a five-day workweek inevitable, or could AI have intervened? Could it have helped fill gaps while the company charted a more profitable path forward?
AI can already perform a number of everyday tasks, and it is expected to take on even more in the coming years. According to the World Economic Forum, machines and algorithms will perform more than 50 percent of all workplace tasks by 2025. If Treehouse had added a digital colleague in the wake of its layoffs, some of the tasks that required employees to work an extra day could have been reduced or eliminated. This might have allowed the firm to maintain its four-day week even as it was forced to release some employees amid economic struggles.
That said, it’s important to note that developers are largely positioning AI to make jobs more efficient and less mundane. They’re not trying to replace employees, but to allow them to focus on what they do best. Still, when times are tough — as when an industry faces a talent shortage or a business can’t afford a full staff — AI presents a unique opportunity to keep moving with minimal disruption.
AI That Works for Everyone
Of course, firms don’t have to be in dire straits to enjoy the benefits of AI. By taking care of repetitive and less meaningful tasks, AI enables employees to apply their talents in more creative and strategic ways. And that work — high-value assignments that aren’t tied to a rigid clock — might not require a five-day schedule.
AI helps ease employees’ existing workloads while maintaining on-demand access for customers and clients. With their conversational and cognitive abilities, virtual colleagues are already starting to liberate humans from time-consuming and repetitive (read: boring!) tasks. Going to work should be a lot of things, but it should never make you want to go to sleep.
AI workers have the distinct advantage of being able to work around the clock, seven days a week. They don’t require breaks, they don’t need to be fed, and they don’t need to follow a dress code. They are simply able to accomplish their designated tasks, anywhere and at any time.
What if the matter is urgent and requires more attention? More sophisticated AI solutions are being augmented with emotional intelligence for that very purpose. These AIs can recognize urgent or emotionally charged emails that demand the attention of an actual person, who can be alerted to take action after the virtual assistant has done its job.
Job enhancer, job creator, and all-round innovator, AI has the power to lead the working world to incredible new places. It could reduce stress and free up resources by performing the least appealing tasks, allowing human employees to focus on work that is creative, challenging, and mentally stimulating. When times are tough, AI might be able to pitch in, eliminating the need for staff to pick up the slack. Implemented throughout an organization, AI has the potential to improve productivity so greatly it could pave the way to a four-day workweek.
Jonathan Crane is the chief commercial officer of IPsoft Incorporated.