PIC Reports: The Rise of A.I.

The Terminator

Part 1 in a 2 part series exploring the evolution of technology in the workplace.  

I was too young to see the original Terminator movie but I was old enough to sneak into Terminator 2: Judgement Day  (sorry Mom), and on that day my obsession with the Terminator franchise and all things robots started. Yes, I can quote lines from the movies and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve watched The Sarah Connor Chronicles at least twice (one of my very first posts was about that show.)

At the time of the second Terminator movie, dial up internet didn’t exactly make you feel like the robots were going to take over the world anytime soon. Fast forward 25 years and those robots are starting to look more and more realistic each day.  

Artificial intelligence, “the science of making computers do things that require intelligence when done by humans,” is as simple as Siri on your iphone or as frighteningly complex as IBM’s Deep Blue chess champion. Robots can win chess games and tell us the NBA playoff schedule but those seem like pretty harmless tasks. Can we create a robot that can coach an employee or manager? Can we create a robot that shows empathy when an employees is upset that our medical plan doesn’t cover a spouse’s cancer treatments?

Yes, I think it is a possibility. Robots are already delivering pizza, Uber and Google are pouring money into driverless cars and last week Facebook introduced their audience to chat bots designed to take your orders, tell you the weather and resolve your customer service problems. But these robots aren’t perfect. In China, a restaurant fired their waiters and replaced them with robots and Microsoft’s first chat-bot, named Tay, quickly learned how to become a racist, sexist, holocaust denier via interactions on Twitter. It was taught how to hate!

Waiters, customer service and chess are not  HR jobs. The jobs most typically affected are in old industries and fields like manufacturing, print newspaper, CD’s, etc;  In many cases, technology actually helps office workers like ourselves become more efficient (ATS system? Goodbye tracking resumes in huge paper files).  

So technology is great for us.  I love that I can ask Siri to start a movie or what song is playing and if there is a chance of snow this week. It’s all good…until it starts to learn how to interact on an emotional level.  

Seeing the evolution of robotics, McKinsey conducted a study which “found that 45% of work activities representing $2 trillion in wages can already [be] automated based on proven technology that currently exists.” Further analysis found that an additional 13% of  work activities “could be automated if the technologies used to understand and process human language were brought up to the median human level of competence.”

We aren’t talking about just factory workers or waiters or retail clerks that are at risk for automation, high paying “secure” jobs such as Web Developers (45% automation chance) and Electricians (59% automation chance) have a high likelihood of being automated.  These aren’t $9 an hour jobs! Have you ever hired an electrician at your house? That’s not a cheap service.

I did not have access to the entire McKinsey study (only the cool charts in the above link), as a result it’s difficult to determine what kind of timeline we are looking at. But I think it’s safe to say that depending on the job, automation/AI/technology will continue to take over jobs; it’s already happening in the Gig Economy.

On the HR side,  the McKinsey study gives a quick snapshot of which HR jobs are most at risk:

Automation Potential

Source: Visual Capitalist- Charting the Automation Potential of U.S. Jobs

As you can see,  the biggest risk for HR is the entry-level roles of assistants, coordinators, and payroll where many of us started. In my first role, I spent a lot of time coordinating interviews amongst hiring managers, I ran reports and analyzed data. Today’s HRIS systems can do all of the above and more. Between technology and shrinking HR budgets, it will become harder to find that first HR job.  

For those of us outside the entry-level HR roles, robots aren’t good enough to take over coaching employees or negotiating labor contracts. But AI will get there at some point. There is a lot of debate around how quickly this technology will escalate to take on the human characteristics of creativity and emotional intelligence. Some believe this could happen as early as 2029, others could see it taking another 100 years.   

I believe that many HR jobs are okay for now because we utilize human skills like emotional intelligence, nuanced communication, relationship building, negotiation, etc. Going forward, the secure people are those who demonstrate strong competency in areas where robots struggle: communication, writing and connecting with people. Referencing that experiment in China, with the robots as waiters, they quickly learned that robots do not do the whole “customer service” thing too well.

In our lifetimes, we may never see robots who can coach a manager through an employee relations issues but aren’t those skills already critical to our day-to-day existence? HR, if you aren’t already, start working on this now!


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