Rob May, the CEO of Talla, likens AI to construction workers using robotic exoskeletons, enabling them to lift hundreds of pounds with ease. AI is the cognitive equivalent of that, accelerating and amplifying the workforce, not making them more expendable.

Bots are a big deal. They are now so pervasive that it’s hard to go through a day without having an interaction with one. But many people are still unclear on exactly what bots are, confusing them with robots, drones, and the like. In this article we’ll take a look at what bots are, why they matter, and how they are transforming human resources (HR) departments.

What are Bots?

Simply put, bots are pieces of software designed to perform a specific function. Many have gone so far as to call bots the new apps, but is this really the case? It depends on what we mean by bots. We can group bots into two rough categories: process automation bots and chatbots. Process automation bots perform some designated function, and if you layer enough of them on top of each other, they operate much in the same way as apps do, but with greater intelligence and complexity. On this sense, it seems reasonable to think of bots as suitable replacements for apps.

But what about the second category of bots, namely, chatbots? Chatbots are basically a user interface. Unlike apps and process automation bots, chatbots do not execute some new operation. Instead, they provide clean and quick access to the functions and information already in place. The lines between these two types of bots will continue to blur over the coming years, but at least for now when considering bots in the chatbot sense, the analogy to apps seems less apt. But that doesn’t mean chatbots are any less useful than the process automation bots. In fact, chatbots are being deployed to great effect by all sorts of businesses in all kinds of contexts. And HR is one of the business divisions most fully realizing the power of chatbots.

How Can Chatbots Help HR?

Chatbots are a particularly good fit for assisting human resources departments. This is because HR teams often are inundated by high-frequency, low-judgment tasks that take up large parts of the day. This might be repetitively answering simple employee questions, like, “How many vacation days do I have left?” Even though it does not take a great amount of time to answer these simple questions, when an HR team is managing numerous employees all asking these sorts of questions, that time adds up. And because these questions flow in constantly, they serve as steady stream of interruptions, making it difficult for HR to tackle any sort of problem that requires sustained attention.

Additionally, HR receives employee queries that might seem simple, but actually are quite complex, because the information required to answer the question is siloed across multiple systems. Answering these complicated inquiries thus results in costly time expenditure both on the part of the employee and HR. This is where chatbots can step in. Say an employee wants to know if she can have her vacation days paid out in cash. To answer this question fully might require checking the employee handbook for vacation policy, pulling seniority from the employee directory, and looking at pay level on a comptroller spreadsheet. An employee could easily lose half a day trying to find the right people, the right forms, etc. An intelligent chatbot centralizes all of this information for the employee (and for the HR team). An intelligent chatbot would be able to pull the right information from these disparate sources to present to the inquiring employee. Or if there are legal or policy reasons why the chatbot can’t access this information, the chatbot could instead walk the employee through how to gather the information he or she needs. The beauty of chatbots is how easy they are to use. Rather than training employees on how to navigate the cumbersome information retrieval applications, employees can just talk with the bot. Not only does this save time for the employees, it also saves time for the HR team, which would otherwise be flooded by service tickets from the employees. Now the chatbot can field those service tickets, intelligently answering questions or providing instructions, all the while becoming smarter the more it is trained and utilized.

Having these tedious and time-consuming tasks taken off of HR’s plate will give them the bandwidth to focus on the high-level strategic tasks that are often the most important and enjoyable parts of the job. This could include things like fostering the desired company culture or instituting employee betterment programs. Because HR touches every part of the organization, these benefits reaped by HR trickle down to all, adding value to the company as a whole.

The Question on Everyone’s Mind: Job Destruction

With any new advance in technology, there is always the attendant concern that it will render some workers unnecessary. Chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) are a potent force, but many thought-leaders in the bot space think that job destruction is a concern for the distant future. Rob May, CEO and co-founder of bot company Talla has said that he feels quite bullish about the economic impact of chatbots, and thinks that job destruction from chatbots is still probably decades away. May thinks that rather than fearing the bots, we should be embracing them, because they won’t be automating us away. On the contrary, they will be augmenting and enhancing us. May likens AI to construction workers using robotic exoskeletons, enabling them to lift hundreds of pounds with ease. AI is the cognitive equivalent of that, accelerating and amplifying the workforce, not making them more expendable.

Who Will Embrace, Who Will Be Left Behind

A tried and true strategy for businesses looking to adopt new technology has been the “wait and see” approach. After all you don’t want to invest heavily in some new technology if a few months later it reveals some intractable problem or is rendered obsolete by something else. Rather than committing before the technology is out of the gate, businesses have opted to let the race play out a little bit to minimize the pain of betting on the wrong horse.

But this is actually a dangerous strategy when it comes to AI and chatbots. This is because unlike many other technologies, AI has a substantial flywheel effect. In other words, when it comes to AI, the later you start, the harder it is to catch up. AI’s power comes from building knowledge on knowledge on knowledge, and an early construction of your foundation allows for the exponential knowledge growth to take off even faster. That extra time means more data that can be used to make your AI smarter and more efficient, which creates a positive feedback loop for obtaining even more data to intelligently sift through. This also helps with the progressive automation of those monotonous and time-consuming tasks inherent in all jobs. If your company is a late AI adopter, by the time you finally automate a level of tasks, your competition will have already done three. And each additional level of automation they achieve, the more time they have to run ahead and utilize the AI more deeply than your team or business can. Chatbots are a powerful new tool, and smart companies and HR divisions will race to embrace this technology to avoid being left behind.

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