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Will AI take the human out of human resources?

Will the looming threat of automation impact the people function…
Will AI take the human out of human resources?
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WILL AI TAKE THE HUMAN OUT OF HUMAN RESOURCES?


Will the looming threat of AI impact the people function…

 

Will robots take my job? It’s one of the resounding questions of the last decade, and one that truly keeps workers up at night, yet is it even a relevant concern, or are professionals worrying about a reality that simply isn’t going to arrive? At a recent HR conference in London, attended by over 5,000 professionals, HR tech experts asked the crowd to send in questions, which were then rated based on popularity and subsequently answered. The most-asked was ‘Are we all doomed to be replaced by AI?' Whilst the experts delivered a fascinating explanation of their visions of tech’s future in HR, the resounding feeling in the room was not one of relief or even understanding.

This may be the case because the public is constantly told that for some industries, this dystopian conundrum is already here; a report from Oxford Economics revealed that by its current estimates, robots will displace over 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide by 2030. This massive number represents around 8.5% of the global manufacturing workforce, or the equivalent of making 1.6 workers redundant per robot. The US has already lost 260,000 workers due to the efficiency of automation since the turn of the century.

But surely there is little relations between physical labour jobs and the HR sector, which makes the profession more secure, right? According to Nello Cristiani, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Bristol, maybe not. “Most employees when thinking of AI in the workplace worry about being replaced, and that is indeed a valid concern, since the real point of automation is to replace humans - but I think the technology is not as good as the media believes, so it is not a very immediate threat,” he says.

Most employees when thinking of AI in the workplace worry about being replaced, and that is indeed a valid concern

What are the benefits of automation?

In a field such as manufacturing, the benefits are clear. Traditionally, whilst the machinery of the industrial revolution streamlined production, humans were still very much active in the process for their analytical abilities. Workers could identify an issue with machinery almost immediately and potentially avert disaster by troubleshooting straight away. Similarly, a human could identify a manufacturing issue in the quality control stage of production – an inherently human trait. However, with the advent of machine learning, robots can be similarly analytical, and learn how to identify issues without human aide.

The same is very much true in the field of HR; automation of the more data-driven elements of the job, such as payroll, rote employee communications and the production of analysis reports can be handed over to the competent – and completely accurate – hands of a computer, rather than relying on a human. AI and automation are growing in popularity because, eventually, they will be far cheaper to produce and maintain than a workforce, and often have a higher output. According to research conducted by the World Economic Forum, recent technological advancements pushed down the average unit price of robots by 11% between 2011 and 2016, with greater reductions in price versus quality expected in the coming years.

The power of AI-integrated HR

The good news is that HR is about a lot more than data analysis and thus, according to Herbalife Senior HR Director Steven Berold, robots do not represent the end of the human element of HR. Instead, they offer a chance to innovate and allow the function to become more creative. “AI represents a wonderful opportunity to transform & innovate HR. Not to be confused with other disruptive technologies, at its core AI enables machines to think like humans and perform tasks like learning, problem solving & reasoning,” he says.

 “Jobs will be inherently be enriched and elevated by AI and machine learning as organisations can invest more and focus more in creating new types of jobs and training their employees to focus on more interesting and higher value-add activities,” agrees CoreHR Chief HR Officer Sharon Looney. “Only humans are able to make creative and context-oriented informed decisions; something that AI simply cannot. These are the things that will deliver higher value to the enterprise in the longer term, whereby the unique power of human decision-making can be fuelled and optimised by the power of AI,” Looney concludes.    

AI represents a wonderful opportunity to transform & innovate HR

Is it all good news?

Not necessarily. Whilst the majority of HR professionals are excited about the possibilities that AI and automation present to the field, Cristiani is weary of the ability to abuse its power in the workplace. He explains: “The immediate concern for me is the way AI will interact with employees: there may be a temptation for employers to deploy workplace surveillance, employee analytics, monitoring of performance, or even of mood or intentions,” he states. And whilst this stark warning may be quickly dismissed by earnest practitioners in HR, it serves as a poignant reminder that humans should always work with  robots, instead of simply expecting automation to lead.

“We should not deploy AI before having a clear understanding of its social consequences. We should be concerned that when employees are given tasks by machines - as with some delivery companies or some warehouses - their autonomy can be greatly reduced - and so could their personal wellbeing,” he concludes. 


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