How does HR fit into an artificially intelligent future?

While machines will absorb a lot of specialised work within the next 15 years, the most service-focused roles will be safe – for now, says Charles Towers-Clark

The reason for the continued existence of HR is in the name: humans are fickle and complicated characters who don’t fit into nicely defined boxes, unlike computers. As far as we might get with AI and machine learning, there is no substitute for emotional intelligence, and many of an HR manager’s processes are too nuanced to be reduced to a binary solution.

However, machine learning will significantly increase the efficiency of the HR manager. To illustrate the progress of machine learning, Facebook can now define someone’s personality better than their spouse, based on just 300 ‘likes’. While an HR manager would not be advised to use this method, an unstructured machine learning application could quickly build up a profile of strengths and weaknesses of employees. It could assess training requirements and organise teams successfully, solely based on analysing company emails and evaluations.

The pace of development in machine learning may be concerning to some, but the role of an HR manager is already changing to suit a new way of working. In my company, Pod Group, employees choose their salaries, decide when to go on holiday and review everyone else in the business every quarter. This methodology, dubbed WEIRD (by most people who hear about it), is based on individual responsibility rather than imposed regulation. WEIRD is an acronym of the most ‘human’ assets inimitable by AI: wisdom, emotional intelligence, initiative, responsibility and (self) development.

AI and machine learning condenses the role of an HR manager even further and is a step towards a world where humans orchestrate the projects of robots, and HR managers take on a much more pastoral and attentive position within a company.

While some roles within HR, such as payroll, can easily be automated, other functions such as hiring, assigning roles and motivating human workers relies on understanding team dynamics – like when to use the proverbial carrot or stick. A good HR manager (and a good manager of any department) will rely on instinct as much as the process, and this intuition is something that computers will struggle with for a while.

Take the interview process. Whereas potential candidates could theoretically be selected with complete accuracy (or merely programmed for the role), the task of judging how a person will fit within the team, their emotional responses and work ethic cannot yet be assumed by a robot. Machine learning will also automate the vast majority of processes in other traditional roles (chatbots are already taking on basic customer service) but to close a sale, pacify an angry client or explain again how subscription billing works, the human touch will still be necessary.

But with self-management structures such as WEIRD gaining traction, the real question is: if AI takes most of our jobs, and the rest of us take charge of ourselves, will there be any humans left to manage?

Charles Towers-Clark is CEO of Pod Group