What happens when we entrust boring but important tasks to artificial intelligence. The risk we expose ourselves to

Although artificial intelligence is an advancement in technology, it also comes with a price to pay that employees themselves bear. Artificial intelligence can make life easier for both companies and employees, but it can have negative effects on the latter.

Artificial intelligence should not be avoided. PHOTO Shutterstock (Archive)

In 2009, an Air France plane crashed into the ocean with no survivors. The plane's autopilot system shut down and the pilots, who were relying on their computer assistant, were unable to manually correct the situation, reports The Conversation.

In 2015, in Europe, a bus driver carrying a group of Belgian tourists entered the wrong destination into his GPS and drove 1,200 kilometers in the wrong direction.

In 2017, in a decision later overturned on appeal, U.S. prosecutors who had agreed to release a teenager on probation suddenly changed their minds because an algorithm deemed the accused presented “high risk”.

The Google effect

These are just a few noteworthy examples, but they are far from isolated. When we entrust cognitive tasks to technology—like piloting an airplane or pronouncing a sentence—research shows that we may lose the ability to perform these tasks ourselves. There's even a term for our tendency to forget information available through online search engines: the Google effect.

As new AI-based technologies promise to automate a wider range of activities, the risk of “skills erosion” is growing. Research by Tapani Rinta-Kahila, Lecturer in Enterprise Information Systems, University of Queensland, shows how this can happen and points to ways to keep the expertise you need even when you don't need it every day.

Rinta-Kahila's research shows that the risk of skills loss is easy to overlook. In a recent study, he and his team examined the loss of skills in an accounting firm.

The company recently stopped using software that automated much of its fixed asset accounting service. However, accountants found themselves unable to perform this task without him. Years of over-reliance on software took a toll on their expertise and they eventually had to relearn fixed asset accounting.

Although the software operated by rules (it did not use machine learning or “artificial intelligence”), it was “smart” enough to track depreciation and produce reports for numerous tax and financial purposes. These are tasks that human accountants would find very complex and tedious.

The company only became aware of the loss of skills after a client discovered errors in reports manually prepared by the accounting team. Since its accountants lacked sufficient expertise, the company had to ask the software vendor to fix the errors.

How the loss of skills occurs

Rinta-Kahila and his team found that a lack of attention to the task led to skill loss.

The accountants were not concerned about the possibility of entrusting their thinking activity to the software, as it worked almost without problems. In other words, they fell prey to “the pleasures of automation“: the assumption that “all is well”ignoring the potential risks.

This had three major consequences:

  • they lost the information about what the automation was doing
  • they were no longer motivated to maintain and update their relevant knowledge (such as tax law) because the software did it for them.
  • since the software was reliable, they did not bother to check whether the reports issued were correct.

How to keep your skills

Here are three tips:

  • pay attention to what the system is doing – what information is being used, for what purpose, and what might affect its suggestions
  • update your knowledge (especially if you are legally responsible for the results)
  • critically evaluate the results, even if the final results seem satisfactory.

What would this look like in practice?

Here's an everyday example: driving with an AI-based GPS app.

Instead of blindly following the app's directions, pay attention to road signs and landmarks and be aware of what you're doing even when you're being guided by the app.

It is also recommended to study the map and the route suggested by the application before setting off. When you reach your destination, think about the route the app suggested: was it fast, was it safe, was it pleasant? If not, consider choosing a different route next time, even if the app suggests otherwise.

Is artificial intelligence a necessary “companion”?

The case of the accounting firm also raises a larger question: which skills are relevant and worth keeping, and which should we discard in favor of automation?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, as professional skills change over time across jurisdictions, industries, cultures and geographic locations. Still, it's a question we'll have to face as artificial intelligence takes over activities once thought impossible to automate.

Despite the difficulties, the accounting manager in the case study finds the automated software extremely beneficial. In his opinion, his team was just caught off guard out of a sense of convenience.

In a world focused on efficiency and annual or quarterly goals, organizations prefer solutions that make things better in the short term, even if they have negative long-term side effects. This is what happened in accounting: increased efficiency overshadowed abstract concerns about expertise until problems arose.

This does not mean that we should avoid artificial intelligence. Organizations cannot afford to miss the opportunities this presents. However, they should also be aware of the risk of losing skills.