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Does AI mean the end of HR?

12 Jul 2018 By Eleanor Whitehouse

Changing our working lives for the better, or threatening our very existence? Two prominent experts on the potentials and pitfalls of automation share their competing insights

In June, just over half (56 per cent) of the respondents to People Management’s survey of the profession told us they thought the gradual encroachment of automation would have a largely positive effect on HR, and estimated that, on average, just 30 per cent of their role could be performed by automated software.

It’s a surprisingly optimistic vision of the future, but not one that is shared across the board. Many believe large elements of HR are ripe for automation – even more so than other business functions. We asked two experts with a wealth of experience but competing ideas about the future for HR, the workforce and the human race once AI comes of age. 

Robbie Stamp is the CEO of Bioss International, and creator of the Bioss AI Protocol – a practical framework for the deployment of AI into the workforce. He was a keynote speaker at this year’s CognitionX AI conference.

Nicola Strong is the managing director of Strong Enterprises, a consultancy in virtual learning, leadership and communication skills. She has a degree in computing and information systems and a master’s in change management.

RS: I think in future we’ll need fewer HR professionals – that’s just the way the world of work is heading. But rather than undertaking a lot of more simplistic work, they will take on a new, supervisory, more governance-related role working in conjunction with the bots. With the introduction of chatbots and other automated programmes, HR will be free to take on more interesting, strategic work, but I don’t think there are millions of new HR jobs out there waiting to be created. I believe the profession will be forced to develop new ways of thinking, further awareness of bias – both our own and machine bias – and the ability to work in teams. But the function has a fantastic opportunity to put itself at the heart of the emerging relationship between human judgement and increasingly powerful cognitive machines.

NS: I’m not so sure – in my opinion, there won’t be fewer HR professionals. On the contrary, there will be two key areas: AI analytics running the personalised employee experience, and HR teams developing talent – and keeping an eye on the analytics to make sure it maintains agreed protocols. There’s a very important word in HR: human. Most people choose HR as a career because they like connecting, supporting and developing people. With AI, there will be more of that in the future; HR professionals will be able to spend more time meeting their colleagues, providing advice and support, adding value, being more people-focused and helping them develop their careers. That is a better employee experience that can translate very quickly into bottom-line productivity.

RS: Large chunks of HR’s current workload, like data inputting, will likely be automated in future, but this needs to be done with governance and control mechanisms in place. If, for example, an automated system is reviewing the 10,000 CVs your company receives every month, the human workers need to retain a degree of insight into the outputs. It might start missing details, or displaying bias itself when assessing applicants. The same goes for using AI to assess candidates’ cultural fit, or using facial recognition to screen them for interviews – algorithms can increasingly detect facial expressions, but you can never be entirely sure of the conversation’s context. So there could be significant information that an AI is missing. HR therefore needs to review the ‘work’ any such system is doing.

NS: I’m excited about the potential for automation in recruitment – I think as more data becomes available, it’ll remove the significant biases that we have in historical data from both candidates and employers. The key is identifying and incorporating the rich neurodiversity of each individual. While there will be an unclear period of time as humans learn to adapt to AI and vice-versa, once this has been ironed out, and we’ve drawn the line between which decisions fall to humans and which to AI, it will be a huge positive.

RS: As an HR professional, how might you provide newly qualified or junior members of staff with valuable experience and sufficient learning and development opportunities early on in their careers, if all the more straightforward work is automated? For example, a law graduate may gain valuable exposure comparing, checking and writing contracts early on, but what if a computer were to do this instead? Yes, it would be more efficient, but how does that person’s career develop without that kind of initial learning?

NS: I disagree. I believe that when AI is able to do the more mundane parts of our jobs for us, we’ll have more work than ever. And this is where HR can come into its own. As employees, we will need to be supported, in an appropriately personal way, both by HR teams and AI systems. No worker will miss out on vital experience, at any level of seniority – they’ll get better onboarding, learning opportunities and policy guidance from personalised AI support. I don’t think the robots are here to take our jobs – they are here to help us have more interesting ones.

RS: That’s all well and good, but we have to be clear about the work we ask AI to do. For example, should we be granting it authority over humans, and allowing it to make decisions? This becomes challenging when a human and an AI disagree. If a surgeon has two minutes to make a decision that may save their patient’s life, but the machine monitoring their vital signs suggests another course of action, who has the authority to decide? If the answer is ‘AI’ and it gets it wrong, it can’t be held accountable – it doesn’t feel or care, and can’t be meaningfully sanctioned for its actions.

NS: By combining our agile human potential with the resources of AI, we can find better solutions for the more difficult problems facing humanity. Yes, it’s going to take a paradigm shift in how we relate to leadership, power, influence, priorities and our favourite routines, but AI is already beginning to demonstrate its talents in crunching through the boring tasks in our lives. Of course, there are some meta decisions that should always default to humans at first, and I think there will be a big debate around this, but AI should take ownership of those.

RS: AI is never going to be entirely human. Our species is the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution. The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each firing 200 times per second and connecting to 1,000 others. We have bacteria and enzymes and an immune system, and we’re only just beginning to understand the nature of our own ‘embodied’ intelligence. That’s not to say that we won’t create other forms of intelligence, but they will be different types of intelligence. A huge part of the best kind of HR is emotional intelligence and people skills – a computer can’t replace those completely.

NS: We have a great opportunity for AI to help us realise what it is to be human. And paradoxically, there are some situations where people are demonstrating a preference to talk to a robot over a human. Research into applications on whistleblowing, tribunal interviews and extreme trauma situations have been successful because the AI system is ‘listening’ to the facts and not perceived to be forming bias judgements. This is a chance for us to form a real partnership with our automatous colleagues.

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