Should we rage against the machine?

For many years now, there has been an air of apprehension about the impact which machines would have on humanity. A couple of hundred years ago, the Luddites went to the extreme of destroying weaving machinery in textile factories through fear of losing their jobs and being replaced by machines. Fast forward to the present day and there continue to be concerns about human jobs being replaced by a machine of some sort. Should we be worried about machines taking over? Or should we embrace the change and the advantages which machines and technology can bring to our lives? And how does it stand in the context of Human Capital Management?

One of my earliest encounters of artificial intelligence came about when watching The Terminator. James Cameron’s masterpiece depicts how Skynet, a manmade computer system which was intended to remove human error from military operations, ultimately gained self-awareness and when humans tried to pull the plug, it sought to destroy the human race in retaliation. Part of this involved sending Arnold Schwarzenegger’s monosyllabic cybernetic organism back in time to kill John Connor, a human mandated with saving humanity. For a lot of people, this was a very scary insight into what machines, particularly clever machines, could be capable of one day. Then came the Matrix, another brilliant film (not including the third, that was terrible). Again, there is a battle of good vs evil, man vs machine, Neo vs Agent Smith, where machine is once more the bad guy. I could name countless other films which follow a similar pattern, could this negative connotation of machines be routed in our minds so that we have grown to instinctively fear them? Especially machines which can think for themselves and adapt over time.


Sadly, now is not the time to reminisce about fantastic films. What good has come from machines adding value to our lives? A few instances spring to mind, one of them being the cash machine (ATM for our non-British friends). Way back in the day when the cash machine was first introduced, cashiers became increasingly worried that their jobs were at risk, when in fact it allowed them to concentrate on the more value added activities for their clients as opposed to the more mundane cash handling. For the client the ATM was a godsend, giving them access to their money 24/7 rather than 9-5. Continuing the banking theme, AI and machine learning is being used to enhance the customer experience by providing intelligent, automated services via machine learning Chatbots, such as Facebook Messenger. This is becoming a very popular platform for many organisations to service their customers and perform tasks like changing a seat on an airplane, sell products and send alerts, just to name a few. Earlier today a friend of mine showed me how he could chat with his bank using this platform to find out how much he had spent last month, much to his despair!

On a more personal level, some of my favourite uses of intelligent machines in day-to-day living are probably not going to come as a surprise to you. The likes of Amazon, Netflix and Spotify are able to give me a brilliant, tailored experience based on things I’ve bought, watched or listened to. On top of this, I was on holiday for 2 weeks (cruising around the Med, highly recommend it!) where of course I took countless photos. A couple of days after returning home to blighty, my Google Pixel phone automatically grouped my photos into an album named Trip to Greece and Albania, as well as segmenting the different photos into the locations where they were taken, clever and very useful! I’ve recently (as of 2 days ago) wanted to get in on the cryptocurrency hype and make millions by buying Ethereum, to do this I needed a way to buy said currency, so I downloaded an app. I had no idea what to do and I was looking for the Help icon, however to my surprise I found a Chat button, where I was able to communicate with a chatbot to get plenty of information to help me get to grips with the app and with buying/selling cryptocurrency. Needless to say I am not yet a millionaire from it.

One final personal comment on this topic comes from visiting a fast food establishment last month to get myself some breakfast. I noticed that there were a number of big pieces of kit attached to the wall where I could select the items and pay for them, I thought this was pretty cool. I also noticed that where there were once 6 tills to deal with customers, this had been reduced to 2 to make space for a bigger food delivery area. I found this slightly disconcerting and it made me wonder, what happened to the people who were manning those 4 tills? Had they been let go or had they been moved to other roles within the restaurant? I hope the latter.

I’ve talked about machines and AI which came out of Hollywood, how these technologies can have an impact on consumers as well as my own experiences. How will this all impact HR in the workplace? By implementing new software, the HR function has been able to reap great benefits over the last couple of decades. Whether has been by way of system consolidation, process automation or moving to the cloud, savings and efficiencies have been realised by many organisations. I’ve spoken to and read about plenty of organisations that are looking to take advantage of AI, here are a few examples of where it could benefit them.

Automation of candidate screening: AI can learn about different qualifications, employment history and other relevant factors, then compare them with top performers that currently work for the organisation, resulting in better quality of hires and a quicker hiring process.

Chatbots: By giving employees access to chatbot capabilities, organisations can provide employees with a consumer like experience when querying things like holiday balance, payroll queries and procurement assistance.

Predictive Analytics: Machine learning capabilities will provide organisations with insight into top performers, likelihood of attrition and predicted performance.

Modern learning: based on an employee’s preferences, job profile and activity, machine learning will be able to target employees with relevant, specific learning that will aid their development.

As an employee within the tech industry, I’ve seen many great applications of AI via the deployment of many different systems, platforms and tools. I’m a big optimist, so I believe that the use of such tools will be able to cut down on the mundane tasks which employees are mandated with and give them the opportunity to focus on more interesting, strategic work, rather than completely replacing workers. Where this may happen, tech visionary Bill Gates has called for the robots to be taxed to make up for lost tax revenues, but also to use to fund a training and development pot to help move the displaced employees into new roles.

So should we rage against the machine? No, at least not for now.

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Joe Honess, Analytics Solution Consultant @Visier