AI, Automation and HR

20 December 2017      Opemipo Koshemani, HR Business Partner

Will our jobs be taken by robots? Opemipo Koshemani, Assistant HR Business Partner at University College London, reflects on the ways that new technologies will affect university HR professionals.

A few months ago, I read an online article about how Facebook shut down an experiment involving a pair of artificial intelligence (AI) robots after they invented their own shorthand language that was incomprehensible to humans.

The article went on to explain that researchers at Facebook had built a ‘chatbot’ that was supposed to learn how to negotiate by mimicking human trade and bartering. They were interested in having bots who could talk to people, but said the results had caused them to shut down the experiment. Instances like this have resulted in concerns about a ‘jobless future’; they cause people to become apprehensive of their jobs being taken over by AI and automation in the not-too-distant future. Consequently, the idea that ordinary humans will soon be overtaken by machines or robots has shifted from the realm of science fiction - depicted in movies such as the Terminator franchise and Her - to serious debate.

The rapid rise in automation in the last few years has led to the prediction that companies that master automation will dominate their industries. It is predicted to accelerate even further in 2018. The impact of automation in the workplace cannot be ignored - especially given its many benefits such as driving efficiencies, productivity, and adaptability. The automation of repetitive and mundane tasks will free up employees’ time to spend on activities that add value and are more strategic.

Recent events have demonstrated that AI has the ability to automate millions of jobs, and this number will continue to rise with each technological advance. Some commentators argue that there are jobs which AI simply cannot replace for the foreseeable future - jobs which are, in other words, safe from AI. Human interaction, the ability to read people, curiosity, gut instinct, human creativity and the careful application of conscience are some of the qualities that it has been felt cannot be coded, and so roles involving these will be safe from AI for at least the next two decades.

Whatever differing views there are, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that eventually all jobs will experience some form of automation. This is no wonder considering the ground-breaking work being done by Google DeepMind in the realm of AI. They have programmed machines with the ability to learn, deal with ambiguity, be adaptable and apply instinct - qualities that are integral to being human. Meanwhile, organisations like Saberr have launched CoachBot, a digital coach which provides personalised and actionable coaching for teams.

As the unprecedented advancement of technology and rapid innovation are transforming the world of work and ultimately the rules of business, HR professionals will need to be bold in their approach. They also need to understand that they will be required to adapt and gain new skills in other to support their institution and its employees. Of course, HR practitioners will need to be conversant with AI and automation themselves, and the many opportunities they bring. They will need to guide the institution through a shift in mindset and behaviours to ensure they can recruit, retain, develop and motivate their workforce to deliver best value in an increasingly volatile and changing world of work.

Automation and AI can amplify our skills and abilities as HR professionals. We can tap into the capabilities of AI to augment our work and the service we deliver. We can embrace the results of rapid technological change, such as the automation of repetitive and mundane tasks, leaving HR practitioners to focus on delivering better value to the institution.  HR professionals can pave the way for a change in mindset with an approach that is context rich and tailored to the needs of the institution, its environment and the whole Higher Education sector. Universities as large institutions with diverse centres of specialism and expertise can pool their knowledge and resources to reap the many benefits of AI and automation. HR is well placed at the heart of this activity. Commentators have predicted that AI and automation will result in redeployment and not unemployment and although the exact impact is unknown, there is a real opportunity for HR to facilitate a re-skilling of the workforce and drive a culture change that empowers staff.

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