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PA Life 2023 Summit Follow Up: Will AI replace the role of an EA?

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Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation on artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential impact on the role of Executive Assistants (EAs). It is a topic I have felt strongly about for some time, as well as the fact that I believe the role of an EA is misunderstood and misrepresented. The discussion last week sparked some intriguing questions from the audience and raised important points about the future of the EA profession. In this blog, I will delve deeper into the subject and explain whether AI will replace the EA role entirely or evolve it.

Understanding AI

To assess the potential impact of AI on the EA role, it is essential to understand what artificial intelligence is. Interestingly, I recently discovered that a group of academics coined the term in the late 1950s as they set out to build a machine that could do anything the human brain could do. Progress was relatively slow until around 2012, and then saw the rise of virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. In Layman’s terms, AI can be defined as a branch of computer science that can simulate human intelligence. AI is implemented in machines to perform tasks that require human intelligence.

However, despite these advancements, AI still has limitations. AI can only be as smart or effective as the quality of data you provide it; it does not have emotional intelligence, and it has a limited understanding of context. What AI can do, though, is smoothly manage large amounts of data and manage repetitive tasks, not to mention helping to tackle climate change and develop new drugs.

Where is the EA role today?

Just like AI has developed since 1950, the EA role has advanced tenfold, too. The evolved role of a PA/EA has subtly (and unexpectedly) become the catalyst of positive change and transformation in many businesses across the globe, and (in turn), to ensure we influence the narrative around our profession, we now have a further responsibility to bust the myths around it too. In fact, for more than a century, since the invention of the typewriter, technology has been an invisible threat to the role of a secretary or administrative professional.

As an expert EA Recruiter, I believe that there is not one key attribute that enables you to be a successful EA, and there are most undoubtedly numerous misconceptions about the role, which, in large part (I believe), are based on a failure to understand the evolution of the role. The role of AI is one of these. The historical narrative and traditional associations with the role continue to play a fundamental part in a ‘story’ that is not objectively true and explains why it may be felt that AI can replace the PA/EA role.

In my presentation, I touched on 2020 as an example. When business owners and executives faced a global pandemic to navigate their businesses, many EAs were at the helm, often knowing more about what was happening in the organisation than many of their colleagues. At this time, executives were most likely in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and they required many things from their EA: emotional support, critical thinking, strategic input and ultimately, right-hand support. All of these things, I explained, I do not feel they would have been able to get from a robot.

So, will AI replace the role of an Executive Assistant?

I believe that the position of an EA role is unique, and it can be one of the most influential roles in the business, enabling influence over all aspects through relationship building. Relationship building involves authentic conversation, accurate knowledge and extensive human connections. All of which are soft skills.

In its simplest form, AI is artificial. By its very definition, it is a mimic of human intelligence created by data collection. There are no soft skills.

There is no doubt that AI is evolving, and technology will always play a part in our lives, but to understand whether it will replace the EA role, we must first understand the skills behind the EA role. I believe that the core skills of the EA/PA profession include specific personality attributes that you cannot teach or replicate in AI. Human skills do not translate to AI. It is that simple.

What I feel is being overlooked in this myth is that there is a general assumption that AI and humans have the same abilities, but the reality is they do not. What makes humans effective in the EA role is that they are intuitive, emotional, culturally sensitive, and informed. AI is none of these things, and it is for these reasons I confidently feel that AI cannot replace the role of a PA/EA.

If you look at Alan Turing’s philosophy, AI imitates how we act, feel, communicate, and decide based on data. There is no denying that this has its benefits and can be extremely useful in assisting humans, but that is where I believe AI sits in the EA profession. In the assistance category.

As a human, our skill set is more expansive. It is built through life’s learnings and experiences, developing critical reasoning and emotional regulation refined during exposure to time and evolving situations. These abilities are unique to us and are centred on authentic emotional intelligence because we are conscious. Consciousness cannot be translated into algorithms, AI, or other forms of technology, and whilst the intelligence created may get close to it, I genuinely believe it will not replace it.

AI is an asset to us all, both personally and professionally. However, I am confident that for the reasons outlined above, it cannot authentically replace the fluctuating considerations that are fundamental to being a successful EA/PA. It is my belief that the most effective approach is a synergy between AI and technology and human expertise, allowing EAs to leverage AI tools to become even more efficient and strategic in their support of executives.

Chat GPT puts it perfectly: "The future of EAs is not about replacement; it’s about evolution and adaption to a changing landscape”.

So, let’s continue to educate about the actual value of the EA role, and I look forward to continuing this conversation in ten years.