January 28, 2014

Eliminate the ‘Human’ in ‘Human Resource’—Blame Hollywood If We Do That

“The human element in ‘Human Resource’ is our biggest vulnerability. We should start phasing it out immediately”—Iron Man 3

That line from Iron Man 3 was the most attention-grabbing thing in what otherwise seemed like a whiz-bang, dizzying combat video game for kids with ADD.

It was delivered by Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr.’s trusty aide, Jon Favreau, in his role as think-tank “Director of Security” and as a rationale for terminating the entire human janitorial staff and replacing them with robots.

In effect, that line was tantamount to a call for replacing “HR” professionals with “RR” [robot resource] professionals—perhaps even replacing those doing the hiring as well as those previously or prospectively to be hired.

So, if that comes to pass, we will be able to point at least some fingers of blame at Hollywood, for reasons that are not hard to see—even without a movie ticket.

What makes that pronouncement as scary as any think-tank research-based forecast of the same is that Hollywood movies not only vividly depict and uncannily foreshadow trends, technologies and values, but also spark them—as inspiration, propaganda, validation and familiarization for and of the concepts, values, technologies and perspectives they portray.

The Rise of the Googlator

For example, note that back in 1985 Terminator killer-robot threats were only fancifully scary. Also note that the movie not only habituated us to the idea of being stalked by robots, but also dangled bait and set a bar for future researchers to hurdle and hurtle past.

One of those inspired in exactly this way by Terminator is current lead technical engineer and manager for Google Project Glass, Thad Starner.

An MIT alumni article about Starner, Google Glass: Inspired by Terminator”, noted that,

“As a student at MIT, Thad Starner ’91, SM ’95, PhD ’99 longed for cyborg eyes like the Terminator had—but only to make studying easier… In a half-hour talk before a screening of Terminator 2 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Starner cited his experience seeing the film as an MIT sophomore as a partial inspiration for his future work.”

How Movies Can Engineer Learning”, posted at interestingengineering.com describes how Iron Man has had precisely the same catalytic effect:

“In a recent survey by Career Academies UK, 76% of London students claimed not to know a single engineer. A third of them, however, cited Iron Man as their inspiration for looking into science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Such is the power of Hollywood to shape as well as forecast the future.

Hollywood-Spawned Values vs. Audience-Created Technology

Of crucial importance for HR professionals to note is that it is easier for Hollywood to shape our values and dreams, e.g., to value robots more than humans, than to shape and innovate the actual technology that manifests and implements those values. Ironically, this more easily exerted value-influence is the more critical, since it is a key step on the path to the demand, creation and acceptance of the technology and the values underlying its specific applications.

What makes Hollywood movies so powerful in this connection is that those values can be implanted or at least reinforced in about two hours or less, for the price of a ticket—while we are seated in a darkened movie theater, whereas creating the technology that supports those values can take years, even decades, with a price tag like that of a degree from MIT—as the tale of Thad Starner suggests,

Can HR Adapt and Survive?

Perhaps some HR professionals won’t mind eliminating the “human” from “human resources”. They may think that as long as there are jobs to be filled and resources to fill them with, they will adapt and survive, e.g., through a redefined job description and mission that will mandate that they

  • give robots aptitude tests
  • interview them for their humanoid communications skills
  • confirm their software installs and upgrades
  • check out references from previous users
  • calculate their operational and maintenance costs
  • explore their visual and programming cultural fit within the organization
  • review and compare robot-candidate operational manuals
  • negotiate robot leases and purchases;
  • determine, evaluate and compare their learning and other AI capabilities—perhaps red-flagging any potential for doomsday-network Terminator “Skynet” or 2001 H.A.L.-like out-of-control consciousness and homicidal capabilities.

Sure. That’s a job-saving possibility for HR professionals. As we humans still say, “Nice work, if you can get it.”  But to this we must add, given the pace of robotic advances, “Nice work, if you can keep it.”—while never forgetting that human HR professionals are just that.

Human resources.

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Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).