We should welcome the advance of AI at work, writes Espen Skorstad; it’ll transform our ability to use our uniquely human skills

Humans have always been fascinated with robots, possibly because science fiction foretells that they’ll take over the world. Czech writer Karel Čapek planted the seeds of this paranoia when he coined the term ‘robots’ in 1921 to describe artificial people made in a factory. Initially, Čapek’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. They are powered by algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI), which are already commonplace in recruitment – whether that’s in automatic CV scanning for pre-defined attributes; automated scoring of online assessments; voice recognition and facial analysis technology that score and evaluate candidates in video interviews; ‘chatbots’ that use pre-defined responses to answer candidates’ queries; and software that can conduct initial interviews and deliver shorter, more manageable lists of desirable candidates to hiring managers.

Physical 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 conducted first interviews of candidates for sales roles, capturing verbal and emotional cues and benchmarking these responses against ideal candidate profiles.

What jobs will automation replace?

Researchers at Oxford University have identified nine key attributes that reveal how susceptible jobs are to automation*. They conclude that social workers, nurses, therapists and psychologists are the ‘least likely’ occupations to be robotised, because the ability to assist and care for others – which involves empathy – is crucial. 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 also 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 up recruiters to concentrate on more strategic areas where they can provide ‘human value’, such as building and maintaining interpersonal relationships with hiring managers and candidates, and using emotional intelligence and professional 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 jobseeker is interviewed by a robot, what impression does that create? Does it imply 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?

Who you recruit – and the attributes you look for – may also change in the future. For example, the ability to work alongside robots will inevitably become a desirable competency. New 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. AI already affects our lives every single day, and it’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.

* These are: 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

Espen Skorstad is chief commercial officer for Europe at talent measurement and assessment firm cut-e, which is part of Aon