To S’pore employers: Technology is great, but some things just need to be done by a human

The importance of putting the human in HR.

Abel Ang | September 18, 2021, 08:19 AM

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COMMENTARY: "I believe that it is important to keep the 'human' in some processes in order to leave room for nuanced communications and complex decisions."

Writing for Lessons on Leadership, a series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, our contributor Abel Ang writes about the trend towards automation and technology substitution, and the importance of putting the human in HR. 

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.

“Your services are no needed any longer - you are fired,” says a computer synthesized voice. It is not a scene from a science-fiction movie. It is now reality.

According to Bloomberg, this is happening in Amazon’s business in the U.S. with machines being responsible for hiring, rating and firing millions of people with little to no human oversight.

Amazon has grown at phenomenal speed to become the largest retailer in the world by deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to solve its business problems. Computerized instructions are designed to solve problems such as: logistics demand fulfillment, personalized customer recommendations, and now employee terminations.

The possibility of someone being fired by AI in Singapore is real, similar to what has already happened at Amazon in the US.

In a study commissioned by the Ministry of Manpower and Institute for Human Resource Professionals found that almost 90 per cent of human resource (HR) roles would be impacted by technology in varying degrees in the next three to five years.

The commissioned study, done by HR advisory company Willis Towers Watson, further found that HR automation and technology “may potentially lead to mass displacement of less skilled [HR] employees.”

One trend that has caught on like wildfire in the HR sector is robotic process automation (RPA), which automates administrative work like sending offer letters to job candidates and onboarding of new hires.

Companies like UiPath, which is active in the RPA space, claim that they can “reclaim” 40 per cent of a HR professional’s time. In other words, if taken to the logical conclusion, a company could potentially do with 40 per cent fewer HR professionals.

The trend towards automation and technology substitution is not confined to repetitive administrative processes. Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore has announced that it plans to fully manage employment disputes online by 2023. MOM said that it plans to deploy artificial intelligence to guide parties in resolving employment and salary disputes.

The trend towards AI in the workplace is accelerating and puts pressure on HR professionals to reimagine their roles and upgrade skills in order to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving workplace landscape. It further serves as an early warning to the rest of the workforce to do the same before RPA or some other AI technology eats their lunch.

Disruption rendering more jobs obsolete

Given the disruption that the HR industry is facing, is it a wonder that more than half of Singapore residents are worried about their job security and employment prospects, according to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies think tank?

The worry that Singapore residents have is understandable, especially seen through the lens of employees of a company. The HR department of a company serves as the barometer for what could potentially happen to all staff. If substitution and automation is ripping through the HR department, where personnel decisions are made, what more so the other departments within a company, where the staff are further away from such strategic decisions?

These same concerns are dealt with in the bestselling book Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, released earlier this year.

In the book, people are retrenched from their jobs and are “substituted” in their roles, leading to dissolution of families, and downgrades in their status and financial prospects. To stand a chance to get into university, children must be genetically edited to “uplift” their intelligence. In the dystopian future described in the book, if children are not uplifted, they only have a 2 per cent chance of making it to university and have bleak prospects for their future careers.

While the prospect of AI replacing humans is contemplated, the plot trajectory remains decidedly pro-human, with Ishiguro weaving an allegorical science fiction novel showing how AI and humans can work together to solve real world problems like pollution and health.

Putting the human back in human resource

To harness technology without creating a future crisis in human employment and society, we need to put the human back into HR. Companies like Amazon give us an example of what happens if the current course remains unchecked. Machines will eventually take over the hiring and firing of millions of people without human oversight.

I believe that it is important to keep the 'human' in some processes in order to leave room for nuanced communications and complex decisions. Most importantly, exceptions have to be made in important HR tasks. The same case can be made for other departments within organizations where important decisions are made. In the same way that people dread talking to a machine when they call a hotline for banking queries, just imagine the dread they would have if they had to talk to the same, for sensitive employment matters.

As technology progresses, I also see an increasing need for governmental and regulatory intervention on the role of humans in HR processes. There is an urgent need to develop a set of rules which outline the kinds of tasks that should be mediated by humans in the realm of employment.

In an EU White Paper on AI, the European Commission identified the use of AI applications for recruitment and other HR processes as “high risk” in terms of its potential impact on worker’s rights. A key concern that the Commission has, revolves around possible AI encoded bias and discrimination against workers.

We will need rules that contemplate mechanisms for human intervention in employment disputes, especially those alleging bias and discrimination. MOM shows the way by offering the option for face-to-face mediations for employment disputes, even after its management of employment disputes goes online in 2023.

I do hope that the rules will set guidelines around robo-termination, or termination by AI. Ending an employment relationship should never be done by AI or machine, in the same way that marriages and committed relationships should not be ended by text!

What can we do from here?

In addition, I think there is scope to review the Employment Act in Singapore to consider the disruptive changes that technology will have on employment in the coming years.

While the government has been encouraging workers to keep pace with technological shifts and providing opportunities for them to do so, it would also be timely to reinforce the principle of technology being deployed to enhance human interactions in employment, not replace them.

In the same way that taxi driver jobs are preserved for Singaporeans, I think that humans need to be the center of our employment legislation. The establishment of such a principle could help future proof Singapore’s employment legislation in the years ahead.

As Ishiguro forewarns at his Nobel lecture in 2017, “advances in AI and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment.”

We have to act with urgency to reap the benefits of technology, while keeping humans at the heart of all employment.

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Top photo via Alex Knight/Unsplash.