Whether you like it or not, the spread of artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change the way we live our lives and how we work – and it’s already impacting HR.

At the beginning of the year, Japanese company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance made global headlines when it announced plans to replace 34 members of staff with AI in a bid to cut costs and increase productivity. And the Singaporean government has been experimenting with a chatbot called AskJamie to help users navigate the websites of its various agencies.

Disruption from these kinds of technologies is predicted to continue – and there are concerns from some HR professionals. A study published by MIT Technology Review at the end of 2016 – Asia’s AI Agenda – found that 70 per cent of HR executives believe the adoption of AI and robotics will lead to significant job losses over the next five years, with HR manager and talent roles evolving into broader, more strategic “productivity management” roles encompassing both human and artificial talent.

So what could the landscape of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ really look like, and in what forms is it already with us?

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of AI is currently being seen in the increasingly development and use of chatbots. These are most commonly present in the area of online customer service, particularly among Singapore’s start-ups and financial services organisations, and they are now being used within HR departments elsewhere in the developed world.

Headquartered in India, Acuvate develops chatbots designed specifically to assist departments with internal requests, as well as working with companies to launch their vision of AI. CEO Jagan Jami says the business has witnessed an increasing number of enquiries from companies wanting to implement chatbots for various uses, from HR to IT and sales. Within HR, enquiries have predominantly been around how they can be used in the area of employee self-service, he says.

Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, feels HR leaders have been more engaged with the topic in recent months. AI-enabled automation, he believes, is more significant than previous waves of automation, and has the potential to “reshape” HR. “This is one of HR’s biggest agendas right now,” he says.

It is both a threat – since in HR, as elsewhere, it has the potential to mechanise huge numbers of tasks and entire roles – and an opportunity to take ownership of a smarter way of working.

But what exactly is the opportunity? AI is a spectrum term that has come to take in advanced data analytics at its most basic (essentially, the ability to handle a question by looking up an answer in a data set) through to an emerging category of machine learning, defined as the ability of an algorithm to spot a pattern in data sets and use it to intuitively predict what will happen next. But true AI – software that answers its own questions before a human has asked them – remains possible only in theory and may not happen for two generations or more, if ever.

What exists already is the processing power to scale up AI rapidly. “The technological ability to compute at the scale and speed needed for widespread AI has now been achieved,” says Steve Wells, futures analyst and COO of AI research business Fast Future. “At the same time, the rise of cloud-based digital services through Amazon and Google have essentially outsourced AI and put the technology in reach of even the smallest organisations.”

Fast Future estimates that while less than five per cent of jobs could be fully automated by adapting currently available technology, 60 per cent of jobs are already partly automatable, based on current technologies. So while AI might not replace your job, it is likely to change it.

Already, there are commercial applications on the market that sift CVs and use algorithms to supplement or subvert human decision-making. If you’ve applied for a job in the past year, there’s a fair chance AI has handled your CV.

There are understandable concerns about the propagation of bias in such processes but the entire basis of machine learning is that errors can be rectified over time. Indeed, the next wave of AI will hand more power over HR decisions to computers. It will be able to pick up on common problems: if employees are confused by a new annual leave policy and are failing to complete holiday requests, it may be able to suggest that HR improve its communications on the issue. Or it might mine comments on internal social networks to create what has been called an ‘emotional dashboard’ of stresses and strains, or pockets of good practice.

“The ability to make decisions for us, particularly ones that can be made based on our past history, is one of the key promises of AI,” says Wells. You might give your personal AI the chance to choose your benefits based on what it knows about you, he says, but would you trust it to negotiate your salary with your boss’s AI, even if it promised to do a better job than you could? If, as some believe, AI could become your ‘digital twin’, would you let it sit in on meetings and represent your views?

For Robert Bolton, partner in KPMG’s Global HR Centre of Excellence, part of settling such questions is rethinking the structure and the remit of the HR department. HR business partners, in his view, might become the ‘front end’ of HR, backed by a vast amount of AI making the transactional work happen. Or it could be AI ‘chatting’ to staff on the frontline while a centralised bank of humans act on the intelligence.

The billion-dollar question is whether such technology will ultimately enhance or displace HR professionals. Will it mean more empowered and meaningful work for employees? Or will HR follow the customer service route, where the number of roles is already being eaten away at: with an Accenture study claiming 80 per cent of customer queries can be handled by a chatbot, the future of the call centre looks bleak.

“Nobody knows exactly what will happen, but it seems complacent to suggest that everything will be the same as it has been,” says Cheese. “I genuinely think this is different. If we look at it in a positive way, if we use technology well and are smart in its adoption, it will allow us to work smarter, not harder, remove the less appealing parts of jobs and focus on adding value. But to get there, you have to consciously design the use of technology – you can’t assume it’s going to happen,” he says.

“HR has to understand the agenda much more, and be a greater part of the debate. How do we get the best out of our technology and our people? If we believe in a better future for technology in the workplace, we have to design for that.”

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