Humans have always been fascinated with robots, possibly because science fiction foretells that they’ll take over the world. Czech writer Karel Capek planted the seeds of this paranoia when he coined the term ‘robots’ in 1921 to describe artificial people made in a factory. Initially, Capek’s robots willingly serve humans but then they rebel, resulting in the eventual extinction of the human race. So, right from the outset, robots were portrayed as treacherous fiends who would betray our trust.
This fear about surrendering our world to robots has transferred to the workplace. There’s a growing concern that robots will not only ‘take jobs’ in organisations, they’ll ‘give them out’ too. Nightmare scenarios are presented in which future candidates are chosen by robo-recruiters resembling C-3PO or Optimus Prime. The world may be changing fast - but not that fast.
A robot is simply a machine that’s capable of carrying out actions automatically. And the truth is that metaphorical ‘robots’ have been part of recruitment since the move to unsupervised testing in the 1980s. We now have online CV/résume scanning, for pre-defined attributes; automated scoring of online assessments; voice recognition and facial analysis technology enable video interviews to be scored and evaluated by machines; ‘chatbots’ conduct voice or text conversations, with pre-defined answers in response to a candidate’s queries; ‘robotic’ software automation programmes can conduct initial interviews and deliver shorter, more manageable lists of desirable candidates to hiring managers.
However, actual robots are also in use. In a joint research trial by Japanese electronics giant NEC Corporation and Melbourne’s La Trobe University Business School, a robot called Sophie conducts first interviews of job candidates for sales roles, capturing verbal and emotional cues and benchmarking these responses against ideal candidate profiles.
The rise of intelligent machines
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is driving the evolution of robots. AI is the science of making intelligent machines. A machine is ‘intelligent’ when it can change its behaviour based on feedback and its ‘knowledge’ or internal representation of the world.
Intelligent personal assistants, such as Amazon Echo, Apple’s Siri, Google Now, IBM Watson and Microsoft’s Cortana, are based on AI. They’re built on deep-learning based neural networks (that stem from an expert’s experience) and this enables them to deliver detailed, contextualised answers to users’ questions.
Robots in the workplace
Researchers at Oxford University have identified nine key skills which reveal how susceptible jobs are to automation: social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others, originality, fine arts, finger dexterity, manual dexterity and the need to work in a cramped work space. They conclude that social workers, nurses, therapists and psychologists are the ‘least likely’ occupations to be robotised, as assisting and caring for others, which involves empathy, is a crucial part of the job. Likewise, roles that require employees to think on their feet and be creative - such as designers, artists and engineers - or which involve a high level of social intelligence and negotiation - such as managerial roles - are unlikely to be automated.
Jobs that involve manual tasks and even roles that include interactive tasks, such as telemarketers, bank clerks and administrators, are more vulnerable to robotisation. Some low skilled, repetitive jobs may be replaced entirely.
What impact will this have on recruitment?
Robots are likely to become ‘recruiting assistants. They’ll be given names and characters and they’ll become part of the team, making recruiters’ lives easier by carrying out administrative processes and tasks, such as pre-application candidate support, assessment and interview preparation. This will free you up to concentrate on more strategic areas where you can provide ‘human value’. For example, in building and maintaining interpersonal relationships with hiring managers and candidates, using your emotional intelligence and expertise.
Remember, recruitment is a two-way street: your candidates will be assessing your organisation as much as you’re assessing them. So you have to consider the candidate experience before you unleash a robo-assistant on your applicants. If a job seeker is interviewed by a robot, what impression does that create? It implies that the organisation thinks so little of them that they won’t even spare the time of a real person. Is that somewhere you’d want to work?
Working side-by-side with machines is already commonplace in some industries. For example, 90 percent of flying a plane can be undertaken by a machine. However skilled pilots are still needed, to oversee, troubleshoot and to take control if something goes wrong.
Who you recruit - and the attributes you’ll look for - may change in the future. For example, the ability to work alongside robots will inevitably become a desirable competency. New and different jobs will also be created, such as maintaining and programming robots. The latter will always require a human touch because machine-learning algorithms are only as good as the data that’s fed into them. For example, a robot’s objectivity will, in theory, help recruiters to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias in the selection process. That’s a good thing. But, in reality, a robot could actually discriminate against women in favour of men, if it has been told that men tend to stay longer in your organisation (possibly because women leave to have children). Humans will therefore need to carefully consider any data and conclusions that are used to create each robot’s algorithms.
One thing is certain: robots are here to stay. They already impact on our lives every day and they’ll increasingly transform recruitment. But recruiters should see this as an opportunity. Robots will not only create new roles in organisations, they’ll safeguard many existing jobs by providing employers with a real competitive advantage. So, brush aside the bleak prophecies of science fiction writers. Tomorrow’s robots will be assistants who’ll support us, not adversaries who will conquer us.
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