Memories of a HR Pro at an Artificial Intelligence Conference

I was fortunate to receive a diversity scholarship to attend the O’Reilly Artificial Intelligence conference in San Jose last month. As an HR professional who demonstrates commitment to inclusion through The HBCU Career Center and whose research is on the attitudes and perspectives of HR practitioners towards the use of AI technologies in hiring, the conference gave me an opportunity to view the sessions through those frameworks. 

It was truly a week dripping with new insight for me and I wanted to share some of what I learned.

  1. Professionals from many disciplines are talking about Artificial Intelligence.  Yes, it was clear that most of the conference attendees were technologists, but there was much for a semi-technical HR professional, like me, to appreciate. The sessions that explored the nuances of bringing AI into organizations offered a balance of both technical, organizational and overall business insight.  

  2. The headlines proselytizing on the dangers of AI technologies, are not all true. It may be tempting to think everyone involved in AI development is part of some secret cult with a single focus on technology that will take over the world. Those headlines do arouse a lot of fear in some people because of both the speed and the level of uncertainty involved. Well the truth is that not all uses of AI is to be feared. I spoke to people working on real breakthroughs from everything from health research, financial transactions and bovine science. Participants were not just robot nerds, albeit a little bit quiet until you asked questions about their work. Many were seriously interested in doing good things with AI technologies. Many of the participants viewed AI as something that adds, rather than subtracts from our world.  I found myself agreeing with those perspectives.

  3. Successful technology implementation is still a work in progress. It was not difficult to find someone willing to talk or share about projects gone awry or challenges implementing projects successfully. Interestingly, it was always someone else in the business who was creating the problem. It was never the implementer. AI implementation was experiencing many of the same organizational challenges that come with any technology implementation or change initiative inside of organizations.

  4. There needs to be more voices at the table for AI discussions.   As an interdisciplinary thinker, I tend to view changes through the lens of intersectionality of the experiences of the groups of people experiencing the change.  As a conference attendee, I was there in multiple roles - Educator, Black, Woman, Boomer, Entrepreneur and HR professional. All of these roles have undergirded my work towards employment justice and equity by supporting the career and professional development of those often overlooked and underemployed.  As such, I was very aware of the lack of Black professionals in all the rooms at the conference. History tells us that big workforce changes have often impacted groups in different ways. I firmly believe that some changes coming from AI and automation practices, will impact certain demographic groups in ways that could be harmful or detrimental. Facial recognition tools being used in criminal justice and robots for job interviewing immediately come to mind. Differences in digital literacy and access to technology for some groups could also create barriers to acceptance. With all of that in mind, I applaud O’Reilly for their focus on engaging a broader diverse pool of attendees through their scholarship program.  

  5. We should take the predictions about lost jobs and the harrowing task of reskilling workers seriously.  As an outsider, so to speak, the conference allowed me an opportunity to view AI for it’s potential and hear about things not yet even ready for popular consumption.  As an HR professional, I wouldn’t be truthful, if I didn’t say that my head was spinning a little bit as I considered where the job losses could be, how jobs and careers would be impacted and who would be left out of the future. I left thinking though that rather than giving in to fear, we should be encouraging workers to look for the application and relevance in our own professional domains.  As HR pros, there is much we could get excited about when it comes to improving efficiencies and even making our work more fulfilling.

  6. AI development should be more human-centered.  It was refreshing to hear more people acknowledge the importance of AI projects being more human-centered.  In other words, AI shouldn’t just conjure up images of robots doing work typically being done by humans, but there should be more human involvement in the design and development of solutions.  Human involvement could help us answer questions pertaining to algorithm ethics, build or buy decisions and help us go further with the “Even if we can build it; should we really do it?” conversations. Human involvement will insert more voices into how AI could impact our ecosystem in ways that will affect our comfort levels with topics like privacy, equity and integrity. There is room for many other humans from across disciplines, beyond technologists, to participate in such a conference. 

  7. AI could have a compartmentalizing effect on how we design and redesign work. Rather than be job or career based, designers of work will actually become more task based (hence, some say, the rise of the gig economy). In a weird way, this could make work somewhat less personal for all of us who have to figure out what collaborations between artificial and human intelligence could mean. Optimist that I am, it could also make work more fulfilling if we remove the brainless part of our work.  Some could see this as a type of fragmentation that could make it harder to get people engaged in big picture missions that organizational bodies are pursuing as well become more cog than change agent. Still, there is a flipside to that which means that AI could actually help further our understanding of concepts like inclusivity.  

  8. My sense, after this conference is that hat there are no easy answers to some of the problems AI can help us solve or to some of the new problems that could emerge.  Constant follow up and a richer understanding of how people interact with real time AI models, not only make the models better but clear the way to make sure that we are still engaging all of those who need to be engaged.  Adding AI technology on top of existing policies that are detrimental to some of us has to be a focus for intervention and ethical development and design. Algorithms will not have all good answers.

 Overall, I had an amazing experience at the AI conference and I look forward to others. I welcome other professionals to step out of our collective comfort zones and put our voices in the conversations as well.