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HR and AI: A Grudging Embrace of Irony

At some point just about every one of us, from the factory worker to the radiologist to someone attempting to scratch out a monthly humor column on HR topics, will be written out of a job by clever programmers who’ve managed to wrestle reams of data into something approaching sentience, aka, an entity capable of doing what you do, but better, more consistently, longer, without fail or complaint, and cheaper.

My sincerest apologies for opening a purported humor column on such a grim note but recall the scene in Annie Hall when an adolescent Woody Allen explains that he stopped doing his homework when he realized the universe is expanding and it will eventually be the end of everything. Grim, yes, but Allen (the real one, at least), managed to soldier on and spend the next six decades making some excellent movies (despite some highly questionable life choices). So, take heart: the HR team will remain largely intact, but sweeping change is coming, and in precisely the following three stages.

Stage 1. Some automatically think HR’s position is relatively secure because the human element that’s so vital to their role is hard to replicate. Well, yes and no (spoiler alert: I’ve been very pleased with the quality of “chatbot” support lately). HR is likely to find itself spending more time trying ever-more inventive ways of bucking up the employees that remain, as waves of their co-workers wash out the door and onto the street. Administering to and attempting to motivate a workforce that’s suffering various degrees of PTSD will become a major focus of the day-to-day HR function.

Stage 2. AI is advancing at a shocking pace. Take the evolution of IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer: In 1997, it beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Several years later, Watson, its successor, took on a vastly more daunting challenge when it handily beat Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings. Jeopardy! requires a nuanced grasp of language — including jokes and puns. Today, AI is used in candidate assessment and by chatbots to answer HR questions. But it’s easy to imagine a not-so- distant future — tomorrow, even — when chatbots are used in mentoring/coaching, and AI is applied to performance reviews and rewards programs based on your 23andMe (DNA) findings. When AI inevitably develops tact and a deep appreciation of the absurd — necessary to master just about every modern situation — it will be entrusted with more complex interpersonal tasks, such as conflict resolution, that further move HR to the margins. This is the grudging acceptance, but "holding on for dear life" stage.

Stage 3. This is when you realize AI is no longer a high-performing co-worker or colleague … but your boss. Being replaced by lines of computer code is one thing but answering to an algorithm is another thing entirely. It can’t be cajoled or charmed, has no interest in shooting the breeze about last night’s game or going out for a drink. Even the most human-seeming algorithm is a pitiless, numbers-crunching machine that looks at you as a collection of data points. Either you bargain to claim your rapidly shriveling turf and make peace with this new reality or it’s time to prepare your résumé — with the sickening knowledge that in all likelihood it’s another robot on the other end evaluating it.

It occurred to me as I was writing this that the term “human resources” is exactly what you’d expect if you asked a computer to describe a random group of people at a place of work. Perhaps this is the fourth stage: a grudging embrace of irony.  

Charles Epstein Bio Image

Charles Epstein is president and founder of BackBone Inc. Follow him on Twitter. 

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