Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Human Resources (HR) Benefits Technology
  • Industry Trends & Insights

AI in HR: Is It Real, or Just Hype?

I get asked the same question a lot: "Is artificial intelligence real, or is it just hype and clever marketing?"

My answer is always "Yes, and yes."

Artificial intelligence (AI) is loosely defined and full of jargon, and its inner workings are largely hidden from the end user (much like employee benefits). Since AI is such a complex subject, it’s difficult to know whether the excitement around AI and its impacts on the workplace, and on HR, is just that—excitement without any practical, helpful applications.

Confusion often sets in from the very beginning when AI enters the conversation. What are we even talking about when we say "AI"?

Let's set some clear definitions.

What Is Artificial Intelligence?

AI is simply using data to build technology that's able to do things a human mind could do, such as reason, learn or problem-solve.

Today there are two primary categorizations used when discussing AI—narrow and general.

Narrow Artificial Intelligence

All current applications of AI are narrow, meaning the technology can only accomplish the job that it was built to do. Even the most sophisticated AI still falls into this category or uses a variety of narrow AI components (complex automation mechanisms, machine learning, deep learning, etc.) in combination:

  • Siri can only answer the questions you ask her
  • Search engines can only return matching results
  • Autonomous vehicles can only drive 

You interact with narrow AI every day. It's in your car. It’s on your smartphone. It’s in the software you use to get your job done. In this sense, AI is very real, and it's important for you to understand where it exists, how it works and how it influences outcomes—especially when it comes to tools meant to support your employees.

General Artificial Intelligence

General AI, also known as human-level AI or strong AI, is the type of technology that can understand and reason in a human environment.

This technology has proven to be elusive, despite experts saying for decades that general AI is just around the corner. When people say that AI is all hype, they're typically referring to general AI applications, and they're 100-percent right. General AI does not exist yet, which is why we don’t all have our own Rosie robot from The Jetsons at our house.

A recent survey of AI experts showed a consensus that general AI is still at least 30 years away.And the more research that's done, the further the arrival of general AI gets pushed back. That's mainly because we’re still learning how our own brains work; we can’t code what we don’t yet know.

Artificial Intelligence in HR & Benefits

While our personal lives are made easier and more entertaining by AI-driven technologies like Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, the work of HR and benefits professionals is infinitely more important than recommending which golf accessories to buy, which new music artists to check out or which TV show to binge-watch next. In your role, you impact people's lives in their moments of greatest need.

Consequently, the application of AI outside of retail and media has to be more thoughtful. Elements of AI are already embedded in many HR technologies, from HCMs to recruiting software to benefit administration tools. Simply reducing AI in HR to "marketing hype" overlooks the current opportunities – and challenges of applying new technology in a complex environment.

Used effectively in the workplace, AI will disrupt traditional organizational structures and collaboration practices, forcing new interactions, decision paths and talent needs. But it will also help HR and benefits professionals be better at what they do best, which is looking after people and empowering them to make decisions that will lead to better overall well-being and peace of mind.

Want to get to know AI a little better? Hear more from me and my Benefitfocus colleagues on the subject in the on-demand webinar, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Benefits: How Data Can Help Everyone Win.