AI and social technology: A force for good in the world of work

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AI and social technology: A force for good in the world of work

With unemployment projected to be over 2 million, adults need quick, easy access to tailored careers information and advice. This article explores how AI and chatbot technology can help smooth the transition, even if AI elsewhere in the market is accelerating job disruption. 

Authors: Deirdre Hughes, Chris Percy, Graham Attwell and George Bekiaridis – the team behind CiCi, the careers chatbot and finalists in the CareerTech Challenge Prize.

The meaning of Career

All of us have experienced the imposition of lockdown as an initial shock to the system, whether it made us feel anxious, stressed, lonely, or all of the above. We have had to make adjustments – both big and small – to our everyday lives. This is especially apparent in our everyday working lives, where we are having to adjust to working from home and homeschooling our kids at the same time, while making big changes to the way we manage our day-to-day from inside our homes. Career support has never been needed more, but what does having a career mean right now?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the impact of the pandemic are changing the meaning of what a  “career” is. Massive change is underway in how work is done, the environments in which people work and ways of finding a job that suits particular interests and needs. Contemporary career or livelihood conversations often include: “Where are the jobs?” “What’s involved in working in certain sectors or jobs?” “How do I find information I can trust?” How can I set up my own business?” and, most importantly; “Where can I go for career support, if needed?”

New forms of digital communication have recreated “in-person” experiences. Video conferencing, zoom calls, using Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Instagram enable individuals and groups to connect socially and in a work context. Mobile phones, the internet, and big open datasets have created unprecedented opportunities to leapfrog into new forms of digital careers support. Think of CiCi the bot, which can remember where you left the conversation. When you decide to return, there’s no need to repeat your story and start all over again – unless you specifically ask for a fresh start. With permission, the bot could also share the online career conversation transcript and action plan with the human adviser saving time and energy.

The role of data in careers guidance

Research and practice show that access to accurate and timely labour market information (that is, data about jobs, skills and employment) is important in finding new jobs and training and in planning careers. But accurate labour market information (LMI) can be tricky to source, especially during a pandemic. Much of the existing LMI data is based on historical trends which do not reflect the current reality of the labour market. LMI is most powerful when data sources can be linked together, but this requires adherence to classification standards. The same applies to training course information which seldom can be searched for successfully by a job title. This sets a new challenge – sourcing LMI at a local and regional level for adults to use in their search for suitable opportunities. 

Crowd-sourcing from professionals in the field is one option to be explored. For instance, local networks of careers advisers, employability advisers, outplacement specialists and business associations could pool their knowledge on which businesses might have changing hiring needs, new open day opportunities or expansion plans. This could help individuals tap into sources of information about jobs that are not necessarily published online, or to prepare for upcoming opportunities in advance, increasing their chances of success and the companies’ chance of finding the right match. No one knows for sure how many jobs aren’t published, but many experts argue it’s significant, perhaps as much as 60% of the market for some roles.

Chatbots – a piece of the careers advice puzzle

OECD et al (2021) research shows that during the pandemic, careers and employability professionals across the world have adapted and transformed their work. They have discovered more inclusive and innovative ways of using technology to good effect (Cedefop, 2020). Examples include: distance and e-based careers support policies and practices, delivered either by telephone, online 1:1 interviews or group webinar sessions, virtual career fairs, virtual work experience, virtual internships, career podcasts and ‘careercraft’ gaming. A natural extension to this work is the use of innovative chatbots that provide careers information and advice 24/7, at a time and place best suited to individuals’ needs.

We believe humans and AI ‘chatbots’ can work well together. The term chatbot is synonymous with text conversation but is growing quickly through voice communication e.g., “Alexa, what time is it?” (Other chatbots are also available!) There is an oversimplified notion that the use of AI and machine learning is a ‘disruptive force’ for today’s workers – replacing jobs or transforming them beyond reach. But bots can be a ‘force for good’ when situated in a combined social and professional support context.

It is not good enough to have chatbots designed only by tech experts. Content needs to be based on human behaviour and conversations. Social conversations that take place when individuals search for meaningful learning and work produce a narrative. Conversational modelling is an important task in natural language processing, as well as machine learning. Like most important tasks, this is challenging. Some conversational models have been focused on particular domains and built using hand-crafted rules, such as booking hotels or recommending restaurants. But for something as complex and often intensely personal as searching for opportunities to improve their income and livelihoods, people need to access curated information in an environment they trust, with access to a trained professional to help contextualise, challenge and act on the information if they want it.

A screenshot demonstrating how the CiCi chatbot provides a personalised, guided career journey experience for adults

Social technology – a human-centred approach

We argue that a shift from a longstanding ‘disruptive technology’ discourse is essential. Instead, new forms of ‘social technology’ can be achieved by practitioners co-designing and developing chatbots with their customers at a grassroots level. This form of anthropology has new importance in the context of today’s pandemic and rising unemployment. Designing innovative digital solutions this way can ensure relevant careers support mechanisms are available that people from all backgrounds can use in their everyday lives.

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences (Ruth Benedict)

By observing and capturing human preferences and behaviours, this allows for the collection of information about social relationships, ‘norms’, expectations, beliefs and values in a community. Examining and observing these domains through a social technology lens can be achieved best through co-development work with adults and the practitioners who support them in local communities.

Social technology empowers practitioners to adjust their practice using a chatbot as a ‘state of the art’ solution. This allows them to spend more time with customers who need more in-depth support including those with low or no digital skills. 

The bots may be coming – but fear not! We advocate the use of AI and social technology in careers and employability support services. In today’s world, no-one should feel alone in their search for meaningful learning and work.

CiCi are finalists in the CareerTech Challenge Prize – a joint project between Nesta Challenges and the Department for Education, aiming to improve access to data-driven careers advice and guidance.