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What AI can't do at work

AI still lacks something essential to nearly all jobs — the human touch. (Westend61 via Getty Images)

Artificial intelligence is now a part of our everyday lives and many of us use and encounter AI without even thinking about it. We ask Alexa to play music or check a recipe, Siri organises our calendars and Facebook, Instagram and X use the technology to decide which social media posts — or adverts — to show us.

The development of accessible tools like ChatGPT has also led to the integration of AI in the workplace. AI’s ability to analyse huge amounts of data and recognise patterns allows it to imitate human function and to problem-solve, reason, learn, perceive and carry out day-to-day admin tasks. Understandably, this had led to concerns about its potential to surpass human capacity in certain areas.

AI may be capable of creating images and text, hiring, predicting trends and making financial decisions, but it’s important to remember its limitations. While the tech will undoubtedly bring a whole host of support and capabilities to our workplaces, it is essential to understand that it won’t completely replace humans — at least not yet, anyway.

Read more: How AI could help us move to a four-day work week

It still lacks something essential to nearly all jobs — the human touch.

AI can't empathise

“AI has been a great tool to assist with data analysis and automation, but it lacks the genuine empathy and practical common sense in various aspects of work and life,” says careers expert Deirdre Orr. “The ability to understand emotions, navigate complex social dynamics, and make nuanced decisions based on context and experience sets humans apart in ways that AI cannot fully emulate.”

Empathy, the ability to see another person’s perspective and appreciate their point of view, is a powerful tool. Research suggests that the genuine feeling and expression of empathy has far-reaching effects in our personal and professional lives, and has been linked to better physical health, the maintenance of cognitive function, happiness, resilience, resistance to burnout and better relationships.

It has also been associated with professional success, putting pay to the idea of ‘looking after number one’. In a 14-year study from the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, those who were generous and agreeable were more likely to be promoted to a position of power.

Empathy can also increase sales and investment opportunities too, as being empathic can help people better understand the motivation of clients, customers and investors.

Read more: Should you use AI to write your cover letter?

“Empathy and common sense are invaluable assets in the workplace, each offer very unique qualities that AI cannot replicate,” says Orr. “They enhance collaboration, reduce conflicts, and boost employee engagement. Furthermore, these qualities stimulate innovation, improve customer relations, and aid in sound decision-making.”

Essentially, empathy softens negative emotions — something that AI can’t do. Of course, this is less important if all jobs were to become automated overnight, but research suggests this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Medical technology concept with 3d rendering robot hand or cyborg hand hold stethoscope
In healthcare the ability to empathise and connect on a personal, human level with a patient is crucial. (PhonlamaiPhoto via Getty Images)

AI in the workplace

While the new technology is likely to disrupt our workplaces, it will do so by taking on our admin-heavy tasks instead of replacing us completely. In part, a recent MIT study found, this is because AI is too expensive.

There are jobs in which empathy is even more important. Artificial Intelligence has been making significant strides in healthcare, from diagnosis to treatment and research. It has been rightly hailed as a game-changer, but its lack of an ability to empathise is its achilles heel. In healthcare — and particularly mental healthcare — the ability to empathise and connect on a personal, human level with a patient is crucial.

For people in distress, human connection and meaningful relationships are key components of recovery — so much so that compassion is an irreplaceable part of a therapeutic relationship. Having an empathic connection with a doctor, nurse or therapist builds trust, which can encourage compliance with treatments and help patients cope with difficult diagnoses. This is something AI simply can’t replicate and even if we were to create tech that mimics empathy and compassion, it would raise serious ethical problems.

Read more: Will AI make us even lonelier at work?

And, Orr adds, there are other problems with relying too heavily on AI. “It is limited in the workplace when it comes to actual ethical decision making,” she explains. “Moral judgement comes from within a human, so when it's time to fully assess a situation and issue a complex decision it would be very difficult for AI to provide a response that is fair, ethical, and unbiased.”

A good example is discrimination in recruitment. AI can scan job applications and vet applicants quickly and effectively, making what is notoriously a time-consuming process much more streamlined. But, the decisions made by AI are shaped by the initial data it receives. So if the underlying data is unfair, skewed or discriminatory, the resulting algorithms can perpetuate bias, potentially contributing to widespread inequality.

“AI just can't replicate or navigate the complex nuances of various human aspects in the workplace,” says Orr. “Also, AI is very limited when it comes to customer service. It can understand most simple commands and requests, but AI bots truly struggle to offer employees, customers and clients the personalised touch that is needed to provide exemplary customer service.”

Watch: Accenture CTO explains how AI will aid businesses, new jobs

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