This is the second article of a two-part series about technology and volunteer management. If you missed part one then please take a few minutes to read it before you continue with this article.

As we saw last time, technology has changed the way we work in volunteer management. We are so familiar are with the technology that is now a part of our lives that it’s easy to forget the extent of the change that taken place in the last few years. Yet, despite all that change, we have adapted, both personally and professionally.

But what about the changes that are coming? Changes that could be even more momentous. I want to look at just two examples and how they may affect volunteerism – Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.

Artificial Intelligence

HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Once the preserve of Science Fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the sinister HAL, AI is becoming increasingly common in our modern world.

“AI is anything a computer can’t do yet.” – Seth Godin

Seth’s point is that as soon as what was once branded as AI becomes commonplace, we no longer think of it as AI. Consider Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa for a moment. Show them to your 2005 self and you’d be amazed, but in 2018 they are simply an accepted part of our lives.

The same will be true of AI in our work in 2028. What seems outlandish now will be the norm.

Today, AI systems are helping people do mundane tasks like schedule meetings. Just think, no more email tennis to plan in all those meetings with volunteers. What a time saver!

A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor
A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor

AI is also helping with recruitment for paid jobs. An AI whittles the applications to a long-list of candidates before an AI powered chat bot conducts an initial interview, asking pre-agreed questions. In theory this approach is fairer than an human interviewing as the AI interprets responses without the unconscious biases all humans posses.

This approach to recruitment is intriguing and it’s application to volunteer recruitment is clear – volunteer managers could save considerable amounts of time deploying AI in this way, allowing them to focus their efforts on those people most likely to be suitable volunteers.

Think this is pure fantasy? Well, AI is already being used by some volunteer involving organisations. Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) use a chat bot to answer frequently asked questions from volunteers on CHAS’s Workplace by Facebook platform, releasing staff time to focus on other tasks.

Logo for Children's Hospices Across Scotland
Logo for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland

Autonomous vehicle

Despite some bad press recently, driverless cars are here to stay, not least because many people see them as a way to vastly reduce the horrifying number of people killed or injured on the roads every year.

Back in 2015 Jay Samit, writing in TechCrunch, predicted that a human driving a car will be illegal by 2030. We can debate if that time frame is correct, but it’s safe to say that within the next twenty-five years taxi drivers, bus drivers, lorry drivers and other driving related jobs will be obsolete, replaced by AI drivers.

Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.
Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.

What will this mean for thousands of volunteer drivers giving their time right now? Will they be out of a ‘job’ too, forced to sit on the sidelines as technology does their work for them?

I suppose that depends on whether the core of their role is the driving or, in the case of those who drive other people, the personal connection they have with their passengers? For example: a volunteer who’d drives to empty charity collection boxes may well no longer be needed – especially as collection boxes are likely to go cashless; whereas a patient transport volunteer may instead be able to focus all their attention on their passengers whilst the vehicle does the work of driving them both to a hospital appointment.

If you are managing a volunteer driver scheme right now, what are you doing to prepare for this change? What threats and opportunities does it present?

Closing thoughts

I want to close with the Bill Gates quote I opened the first article in this series with:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.

The changes I have hinted at above might seem outlandish and far-fetched to some of you, but they are coming. They are the tip of the iceberg in how technology will change the shape our lives and societies in future. Volunteering will not be immune to those changes and we have to think now about what it means for our work as leaders and managers of volunteers. Embracing these changes will not be easy and we may feel ill-equipped to adapt. But adapt we must. Change we must. For, as retired US Army General Gen. Eric Shinseki said:

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Further reading

For those interested in doing a little more reading about AI I highly recommend three articles that indicate some of the ways in which AI could be harmful, especially as it may not be as unbiased and neutral as some people argue:

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