Don’t get caught up in tech hype and erase the human factor in the process.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement that is the future of technology, and much harder to ground yourself in the realities of how it may harm us.
Some of us are fearful of robots taking over the world – Hollywood has capitalised on, and probably contributed to, this fear on many occasions – but when it comes to the interactions with our own devices, we tend to be far more forgiving.
When Apple brings out a new version of its iPhone, we buy it. The very idea of a driverless car has us enraptured. Even just getting to watch a video of someone else sitting in one of these autonomous vehicles elicits joy. We tell ourselves certain devices (‘the fun ones’) are here to help, not hinder. But it turns out that might not be the case.
Seeking out the ‘why’
Dr Fiona Kerr, founder of the NeuroTech Institute, a neuroscience research and consultancy firm, is an expert in the impacts of technologisation. It’s a topic that she spoke about at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in September this year. She knows more than most just how important maintaining the human-to-human relationship is.
She’s putting quantitative science behind the things that should be improved and augmented with technology, and the things that shouldn’t.
“I look at the unique advantages of humans and the unique advantages of artificial intelligence. I ask questions like, when is a human more effective and efficient than technology? When does technology help to solve the issue or create an advantage? And if a partnership between them is optimal, what does that partnership look like?”
Kerr works across a variety of sectors. She is analysing the partnership of human soldiers and their autonomous robots when making decisions in the field, researches and advises on ethical decision making with AI, and examines the use of robotics in the health and aged care industries.
“I’m preparing a project called Project Heart where I scan the brains of older people when they interact with robots and then scan their brain when they then look at their trusted carer and look at what’s different,” says Kerr.
“We know from Finnish research that there are parts of your brain that never stand up when you look at someone over a screen. We look into if that’s always the case or if it changes over time.”
When humans are together, she says, they synchronise their brains and resonate, emitting chemicals that exchange when in proximity across the space – the sort of thing that technology can’t do (yet).
“There are times when technology gets in the way of our capacity to connect, engage, empathise and to collaborate together.”
“Our creativity, adaptivity and complex thinking skills are minimised when we interact with technology too much; those things are hugely maximised when we create chemical changes and get the brain synchronisation that happens face-to-face with humans, and when you allow the brain to reorganise and make new connections in quiet thought.”
In a previous article for HRM on the future of work, Kerr spoke about the importance of having low-tech spaces in the workplace.
“In order for the brain to go into a state called abstraction – when you are truly creative and have those ‘A-ha!’ moments – you have to turn technology off because it distracts you in all kinds of cognitive ways. We need to design spaces for reflection or to be in nature. Our brains are working in an elaborate and extrapolative way when we’re staring out of a window.”
Asking the right questions
We don’t actually know what the advantages and disadvantages of technologisation in the workplace are yet, says Kerr. We’re still learning how to identify and minimise some of the drawbacks. But one that Kerr is currently researching is cognitive fatigue.
“Whenever we interact with a screen, we naturally get different types of cognitive fatigue. We experience technology and information from screens differently. We don’t read it the same way as we would on paper. We put the information together in different ways. You have to think, if you want everything to be techonologised, what does that actually do to the brain?”
Kerr cites the example of an HR consultancy firm she worked with. She helped them tweak every aspect of technology they were using – emails, social media, client/employee communication platforms, etc – and collected data over 12 months. The company is based online, but by staff taking time away from their computers to have deep-dive, screen-free time, they were able to increase their productivity levels and increase work quality for their clients.
This outcome is obviously desirable, but you might not have guessed that less technology was the way to get there.
Don’t start by going with the latest and greatest technology you’re being sold in order to solve a problem, says Kerr.
“Flip it around and ask ‘What’s the question?’, ‘What’s the problem?’ or ‘What’s the opportunity?’ The next question you should then ask is, ‘Does technology have a role to play in that?’ Often it does, as the right technology applications can be transformative. But you may be surprised how often it doesn’t.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
Learn more about how you can strategically use HR technology and understand more about emerging tech with Ignition Training’s HR Technology one-day course.