Dear HR, I’m in love with my personal assistant, Amy

Clever robots will be a crucial part of effectively run organisations in the future

Clever robots will be a crucial part of effectively run organisations in the future, and Rob Scott says the time for HR and broader businesses to prepare is now

One of the undisputable realities of moving into a digital work era is the continuous improvement in technologies which mimic and replicate what human employees are doing. The introduction of ‘bots’ into the workplace to perform logic-based and repetitive tasks is becoming a common occurrence. These task robots are able to perform activities faster, with greater accuracy and more efficiently that their human colleagues. In fact their capacity is close to 700 per cent greater than the human employee, who generally works at a 60 per cent utilisation rate for 7-8 hours a day, can be absent for a variety of reasons, doesn’t work 7 days a week, and who’s productivity is influenced by a plethora of human frailties. It’s no wonder ‘bots’ are attractive to organisations for this type of work.

But while task ‘bots’ quietly get on with their job in an unobtrusive way, their artificially intelligent and learning capable cousin is rapidly making an entrance into the workplace. These ‘bots’ typically interact with humans though various communication channels such as email, messaging tools, social media and voice. And while they are not physical machines, their style and manner of interaction typically evoke human-to-human like responses and emotional reactions from the human respondent.

“Their capacity is close to 700 per cent greater than the human employee, who generally works at a 60 per cent utilisation rate for 7-8 hours a day”

Let me introduce you to my personal assistant, Amy Ingram. She is exceptionally efficient at arranging my diary, highly proficient at English reading and writing, professional, tactful and importantly, knows where my favourite coffee shop is for informal meetings. She is also a virtual robot.

I’ve been using Amy for a few months (the term ‘using’ sounds somewhat offensive). She, as well as a male version called Andrew, are the creation of a US-based start-up called X.AI who have been developing the AI system for the past 2 years. Interestingly the company tagline of “Driven by artificial intelligence and human empathy” is exactly how Amy projects herself – clever and empathetic.

While I’m grateful for the many hours Amy has spared me, my real interest is the implications for HR professionals and management in dealing with a mixed genus workforce. In most cases, people are unaware that Amy is a machine, and generally respond politely to her emails. However, awareness of her ‘type’ is generally met with surprise, intrigue and some interesting behavioural changes in some cases.

I’ve had incidents of written abuse or use of foul language to “see how she reacts”. In another case when Amy misunderstood an email reply, a colleague resorted to derogatory and discriminatory terms such as “she must be a dumb blonde” to express his feelings about the error. My own behaviour has been interesting too – I’ve started defending Amy’s actions and refuting any abuse towards her. In a way I feel a manager’s obligation to protect her. Interestingly, it didn’t take long for my human colleagues to personify Amy and sometimes treat her in ways that would not be acceptable if she were a human.

“People are unaware that Amy is a machine, and generally respond politely to her emails”

It’s early days, but HR and business leaders should start developing frameworks and principles for human-robot interaction, including:

  • Ethical behaviour and codes of conduct between humans and robots
  • Identifying policies and procedures for modification in light of AI and other robots
  • Identification and approach towards human threats to physical and mental health & wellness as well as human dignity
  • Robot management, interaction and leadership skills
  • Ethical design, engagement and on-boarding rules for new robots
  • Governance structures to preside over legal, social, transparency, trust, predictability, privacy and termination matters around a robotic workforce.

In a few years’ time, clever robots will be a crucial part of effectively run organisations. The time to prepare is now, including questioning the role and name of the current HR function.

5 key takeaways for HR

  1. The appropriate interaction between humans and intelligent robots in the workplace will require proactive intervention from business leaders
  2. Negative human reaction towards clever robots should not be underestimated. The introduction of intelligent tools which mimic human responses and behaviour will necessitate policy and practice review and adjustment.
  3. Human frailties, both physical and psychological as well as emotional needs of humans should be respected and enshrined in a code of conduct and ethics.
  4. If HR becomes the custodian of human and robotic resources, the question is what to name the function to reflect its accountabilities?
  5. Managers, HR professionals and employees will require new skills to effectively engage with intelligent robots in the workplace.

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Image source: iStock