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Transforming HR in the age of AI and Robotics

Transforming HR in the age of AI and Robotics

What are the areas in HR that requires disruptive thinking?

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by Jayesh Menon

We are hiring!-  Human Robotics Relationship Manager

You should not be surprised if you see a job posting like this coming up a little sooner than you expect. While it may take a tad bit more for us to have robots like the ones in terminator or ex-Machina, we are not very far away from having robots with capabilities to perform multiple tasks working along with us in our workplace. In fact some of them may already be there on your desk in the form of amazon echo or Google home, under your desk in the form of an irobot, or at your clinic in the form of DR.Watson.

The age of robotics:

The first use of the word "robot" occurred in a play about mechanical men that are built to work on factory assembly lines and that rebel against their human masters.  These machines in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), written by Czech playwright Karl Capek in 1921, got their name from the Czech word for slave. The word "robotics" was coined by a Russian-born American science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1942 in his short story "Runabout."   He generally characterized the robots in his short stories as helpful servants of man and viewed robots as "a better, cleaner race."

While there are many who still think that it is too soon to call this an age of robotics, the statistics do tell a different story. For example, data from the international federation of robotics says that in 2014, robot sales increased by 29% to 229,261 units with most of them being shipped to Asia.  This trend according to their data is only going to increase with higher spend on robotics by governments and private companies alike. In his book Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane , Brett King states that By 2025, more than 1.5 billion robots will be operational and by 2030, we may be out-numbered by them.

A recent news item that caught attention of many has been the replacement of 60,000 jobs by robots in Foxconn. Even more interesting is the fact that it happened in just one factory! While many of these robots may be still be very industrial in its function, what would change over time is robots that have a higher level of “artificial intelligence” which hypothetically would make them capable of doing  almost any task which is performed today by human beings.

The impact of Robotics on workplace:

It took me a while to be sure that the picture I saw above was really that of a robot or “otonaroid” as they called it.  The recent technological advancements has been a real hockey stick curve and if we continue these advancements, it is not long before we would have more advanced versions of otonaroid living and working among us. These rapid and exponential advancements have led mathematicians and technologists to the hypothesis of what has been dubbed the singularity ( made famous by Ray Kurzweil in his book “The singularity is near”) – a time when technological advancement reaches escape velocity. Ray Kurzweil even makes a bold prediction that by 2030 , we would be able to merge AI with the human brain! Needless to say, these advancements will have an impact on employment and our day to day interactions in the workspace. The impact on employment is considered to vary across industries and countries. Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborn claim that technology will transform many sectors of life. They studied 702 occupational groupings and found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years. In his book “ The rise of the robotics “  Martin Ford has argued that these technological advancements will have a huge negative impact on employment. However in an article written on LinkedIn by David Green, he highlights the research from BCG which predicts an acute workforce shortage crisis by 2030!.  Without going into the merits and demerits of automation and its impact on employment, one can state with high level of accuracy that this will have an impact on the workplace and the interaction between colleagues, or rather humans and robots. Those in manufacturing sectors may not be new to this, as they have always interacted with some form of robot or other in their work environment, most of which were programmed for a very specific task and required a human intervention at some stage of that process to complete the task ( mostly at the beginning or end). This may change as AI becomes more advanced which would shift robots from someone merely performing a task under human supervision to being an equal ( or may be unequal!) team member.  Take the instance of the super computer watson, which today can predict cancer with a higher accuracy than human doctors. In this case we would see doctors (also patients and the staff) interacting more with these robots who are as capable as they are in diagnosing and probably treating the patients. This along with other robotic advancements will lead us to have more “interactions “with robots as our colleagues.

“ This is not a race against the machines . If we race against them we lose. This is a race with the machines. You will be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots” Kevin Kelly (former editor of wired magazine)

The role of HR:

If you look at the role of HR , it has evolved from being a personal manager to that of a strategic partner. This evolution has not been perfect.  However there has been an increasing recognition of the fact that HR has a critical role in taking an organization forward, and that good HR practices do contribute to the better engagement which in turn contributes to higher  company performance. In continuation with evolution of HR, one of its key challenges in the age of robotics would be the uncanny valley; a word coined by Masahiro Mori. Getting over this uncanny valley to ensure that human and robots do work together as a team in an organization  would be one of the organizational design and cultural challenges that HR will have to deal with.

Pic sourced from:

While there is still not much research in the area of human–robot interactions and how it would impact either of them, this is an area  that HR practitioners might like to get serious about. This may also lead to a major departure from some of the traditional engagement and motivational models based on maslow and other psychological theories. Some hypothesis on the areas in HR that may require some disruptive thinking are given below.

  • Governance and culture: What would be the culture of an organisation that transcends human cultures and blends it with machines that learns and develop themselves? How does HR play its role in ensuring that we don’t resort to stereotypes which our brain is fully programmed to do while dealing with these machines.
  • Performance management: A traditional performance management in companies are done based on the principles of relativity where a person’s performance is compared with the other. Now,how do you ensure that we treat performance on equal scales between a robot and a human being. If jeopardy and the winner watson is any indication of how we perform against robots, we are being simply unfair here! But then as my friend Laurence Smith suggests, if humans and AI can partner with each other they would tend to outperform human or AI working alone. According to Lawrence "If it's true that Robots/AI partnered with humans out performs AI or humans alone, then the future of Human Resources seems to be the thoughtful blending of man and machine, each optimising and leveraging each others strengths in a dance of synergy. If so, then the next evolution of 'HR' is perhaps 'HRi' - or Human Robot integration..."
  • Employee relations: We have already seen how “uberisation” has created great discomforts for traditional workforce and governments alike. In his book “The third wave” , Steve Case suggest that the third wave of technological innovations would require entrepreneurs to closely work with governments and institutions that are going to get disrupted. This is the same with HR, where we will have to find a way to carefully blend these advancements and work with the people who will be impacted by these technological advancements.
  • Total rewards: There is already a wide range of economists who have predicted further fall in wages while productivity increases. While this is a trend that has been seen, it may be time for HR to rethink how its total rewards philosophies are in line not just with the market (which is how most companies benchmark!), but with respect to really motivating human beings to closely work with and co-exist with automation and AI.

HR has often been blamed for being too slow to catch up with the rest of organization. While some of these changes may be too futuristic, it may be worthwhile to start thinking of it a few steps ahead!