It’s no secret that technology is slowly- or rapidly in some cases- taking over our lives in every facet. My day isn’t even half over and I have already used nearly the full charge on my iPhone battery, and I’ll bet I’m not alone on that. We may think of technology mostly from a personal standpoint: the use of handheld devices like a FitBit or the Amazon Echo, but unless you work directly with new technology in your job, you may not realize just how far we’ve come and how much closer we are to the regular use of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace.
Artificial intelligence? You mean, robots?
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), as defined in a recent study at Columbia University, is “a branch of computer science that uses machine learning algorithms that mimic cognitive functions, making machines more human-like.” Like Paul Revere once said, “Artificial Intelligence is coming, Artificial Intelligence is coming!” (or something like that). We may not see life-like humanoids riding on horseback like the Redcoats to take our jobs, but we do need to acknowledge and embrace the technology nonetheless to ensure that, when used properly, A.I. can be a tool rather than a threat.
They won’t take MY job though, right?
At this point, there is no certainty in that area. I think we can agree that we will not soon see the Hollywood version of A.I. coming and replacing all our workforce, but what we are seeing is the automation of many jobs, particularly in the service sector. Amazon is almost ready to launch their grocery store without a line, Amazon Go. The concept here is to use advanced technology-- particularly intelligence I am far under-qualified to explain-- to eliminate the checkout process. Instead, customers will use the Amazon app to essentially “log in” to the store, which will automatically track what is in your basket and charge your account directly. Another story out of Japan states that IBM’s Watson Explorer, an A.I. program costing $1.7 billion, has successfully taken over the work of 34 employees of an insurance company. How about one more example, you ask? Currently, you can buy the software to “hire” an A.I. personal assistant named Amy to schedule your meetings, take notes, and even answer your emails for you in an individualized manner. So, you may ask again, “They won’t take my job, right?” Just from the above three examples, it looks like if you are either a grocer, insurance salesperson, or a personal assistant, they WILL take your job.
But what about HR? Robots can never replace HUMAN resources!
Artificial Intelligence is designed to make machines more human-like, so if there is a way to make Human Resources more human-like, why wouldn’t we do it? At this point, most of the A.I. surrounding the HR sphere is in recruitment and onboarding (think automated screening, video interviews, post-offer acceptance, and on-boarding processes), but there are signs that A.I. has already or soon will make its way to other HR functions.
In order to keep their seat at the table, HR folks must be able to collect and understand real and usable data in this numbers-driven world we live in. Several A.I. programs either already exist or will be quickly making their way to large companies in the near future that will elevate HR functions, maximize workplace productivity, and provide more support to managers, employees, and candidates. For example, a company in the Chicago area is working on an artificial Human Resources Assistant names Sue that will be able to answer employee questions about benefits, locate important employee resources, and will effectively take out many of the mundane tasks HR managers currently have to undertake. Somewhere down the road, this company also hopes this HR tool will be able to provide coaching sessions and analyze large amounts of strategic talent management data and offer real solutions. If used properly, this HR assistant program, along with the other various A.I. programs already in place in Human Resources, should only enhance a company’s HR function and lessen the more mundane tasks, allowing professionals to focus more on the strategic decisions.
What does all this really mean, anyway?
If you’re anything like me, mostly everything “tech” goes way over your head and is way above your pay grade. Even so, as promised, I am going to try my best to summarize both the good news and the bad news that comes along with Artificial Intelligence in the workplace.
The Good News
If I have learned anything from working with people, you always start by delivering the good news- it makes the bad news seem far less daunting. The good news about A.I. in the workplace is that our jobs should all become easier! The idea behind Artificial Intelligence is to make things run more efficiently, so if properly installed and maintained, some of the more mundane, and in some cases, some of the more difficult, tasks will now be automated. This also means plenty of new jobs will have to be created-- someone has to create and maintain this Artificial Intelligence after all, right?
The Bad News
Just as I ended the good news by saying more jobs will be created, I start the bad news by saying that jobs will also obviously be lost. In the case of the Japanese Insurance Company outlined earlier, 34 full-time employees were replaced by one A.I. program. Another downside to this trend is the overall resistance to technology we often see. In order for this technology to fulfill its purpose, everyone needs to be on board and employees, both people and tech, need to be able to work together to see the most benefits from A.I. programs.
Get to the point! What does this mean for HR?
Even in 2017, this is not an easy question to answer. The only information I could provide here is that HR is not an exception to the rule in that our function will be either the benefactor or the victim of more A.I. programs in all areas. If not used properly, these types of programs could very easily take our jobs while not creating any new ones. If used as they are intended, these programs could be exactly what HR needs to keep its seat at the table: a data-driven function that serves the needs of the business just like any other!
Nick Kruger is a Graduate Assistant in the Graduate Programs in Human Resource Development at Villanova University. He also serves at the Co-President for the VUSHRM chapter. Learn more about him here.