By Elliot H. Clark
With all due respect to Isaac Asimov, the continuing reliance on technology has yet to produce the predatory examplesÂ of âI, Robot,â or the scary dominance of machines of âTerminatorâ (which threatened to come back and kept on doingÂ so in sequels, sadly), or the terrifyingly logical and murderous Hal of â2001: A Space Odyssey.â In truth, software robots,Â manufacturing robots, and even those Roomba vacuum cleaners are pretty boring (unless you see a YouTube video of aÂ cat riding one). For HR, the questions are: What are robots? And what are they not?
HR applications of technology are different than automobile assembly plants, which deal with inanimate productionÂ products. The frothy excitement that is seen in the HR press about âbotsâ and their future is pretty speculative and atÂ some level, in spite of the promise of technology, I just donât care. And as you will see below, that is the point.
In truth, the robots return the favor. They donât care about me, anyone else, or anything. Thatâs because they canât care.
Robots have been mislabeled as âartificial intelligence.â The one word in the label thatâs true is âartificial.â They areÂ man-made creations and they are not, have never been, and as currently configured, will NEVER BE intelligent. WhatÂ the advertising gurus that develop messaging for software donât understand is that the word intelligent has a specificÂ meaning. It connotes the ability to judge, to improvise, and in humans, the ability to emote or to care. If we continueÂ mislabeling, the Age of Reason will have offi cially ended because we seem to no longer recognize the difference betweenÂ the ability to reason and the inability to reason.
Todayâs software bots engage in machine-based learning. They can observe and replicate. They can learn driving byÂ analyzing traffic âtransactions.â You donât need to tell them to stop at red lights. They observe millions of traffic patternÂ data points and just begin to replicate. They can do it at breathtaking speed. However, they learn by the same premiseÂ that led to the old proverb: âmonkey see, monkey do.â Does that sound intelligent?
It was bots that landed Amazon in trouble with the EEOC. I know many of the HR professionals at Amazon and theyÂ are some of the best in the business. The bots had flaws that led to replication of patterns of bias that Amazon wouldÂ ethically abhor, but the company had no idea bias was taking place inside the black box of technology.
I am, to be clear, not opposing the rise of technology in HR. I am, however, strongly advocating for calling it what itÂ actually is: machine learning, not intelligence. Many transactional areas of HR can and should be automated, but whenÂ there is a function that requires caring and requires sensitivity, it must involve humans. The human brain is still the mostÂ sophisticated, electrically-based computer on Earth.
The debate will rage over the next decades over where the line should be drawn. There are some companiesÂ experimenting with using chatbots online and on the phone to manage first-line triage in employee relations call centers.Â Some HR leaders see this as great; others are horrified. Consider these examples: If an employee is calling to verify dentalÂ coverage, a bot could likely handle the questions. But if an employee is calling to report an incident of harassment, this isÂ likely too sensitive for an online software program to manage.
Where do you stand on the deployment of technology? Everyone has a different perspective and this will be anÂ important topic for HR to address as a community. We know HR cares about how this impacts the workforce. And caringÂ still makes us better than the bots, and we should celebrate our flawed humanity every chance we get.