Automation has been the driving force of the new “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—altering job markets and social landscapes as new advances in computerization and machine-learning increasingly displace trades ranging from warehouse labor to fast food and even an increasing range of white-collar roles.
But we’re betting that few will mourn the loss of human resources positions or job interviewers, who are notoriously fickle and, yes, often quite biased, with many complaining of discrimination and prejudice when applying for jobs on the basis of a range of factors including age, disability, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, appearance, weight and religion.
Enter Tengai, a robot job interviewer that consists of a three-dimensional bust with an attached face that can speak and smile. The robot doesn’t only lack a torso and, well, humanity–but also is designed to give truly equal opportunities to job applicants by evaluating them based on professional ability alone while leaving aside common influencing factors including discriminatory biases.
Developed by Stockholm-based AI startup Tech Robotics, the seven-pound robot operates in a similar manner to such voice assistants as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. The device is already capable of speaking 30 languages, has a swappable face, and has the ability to speak, react, and maintain eye-contact when placed on a table at eye-level while tracking candidates’ eyes using cameras.
Swedish job recruiting agency TNG has already begun using the seven-pound torso-less robot in a series of trials to gauge how well the new “social robotics” product would perform live. In a press release, TNG touted its “journey to bring Tengai to life,” and offer a human-like experience. The release explained:
“Cognitive bias is a well known issue in the recruitment process and ‘Tengai Unbiased,’ as the robot will be called, will be used to assist recruiters in the early stages of the recruitment process, where questions are primarily skill and competency based. The vision is to better analyze, understand and perform competency-based interviews and assessments while eliminating unconscious bias.”
Elin Öberg Mårtenzon, a chief innovation officer at TNG, told BBC News:
It typically takes about seven seconds for someone to make a first impression and about five to 15 minutes for a recruiter to make a decision. We want to challenge that.”
The ultimate goal is to also allow for qualified candidates to be chosen–bad news, perhaps, for those who’ve landed jobs successfully due to their schmoozing skills. Instead, small-talk and personality-gauging would be cut out of the initial interview process to make way for a streamlined, standardized, and ideally fairer and more objective job interview.
After the interview, job recruiters or managers would then be able to peruse transcripts to ensure a human analysis of the interview.
Gabriel Skatze, the chief scientist at Furhat, told BBC that Tengai is also perfecting its behavior through interactions with a diverse range of volunteers.
“It’s learning from several different recruiters so it doesn’t pick up the specific behavior of one recruiter,” Skantze said.
Sweden is a country that has been rife with problems of ethnic diversity in the job market, with unemployment sharply affecting foreign-born Swedes who are facing a 15 percent unemployment rate while native-born Swedes hover at around 4 percent unemployment.
“Swedish culture is very risk-averse, so normally they like the safe card… the Swedish person,” a Bulgarian job-seeker told BBC as she stood outside of a job recruiting agency, adding that the robot wouldn’t “have any stereotypes about your dialect or accent or where you come from.”
Yet champions of inclusion in labor markets, such as Swedish nongovernmental organization the Diversity Foundation, are hailing the possibility that Tengai could provide a solution to job discrimination.
Diversity Foundation chief operating officer Matt Kriteman said:
“Any method that emphasizes competency and skills over things like ethnicity is a welcome development and truly part of the Swedish innovation spirit.”
But psychologist Malin Lindelöw warns that the psychological impact of facing an inanimate interviewer could give prospective job candidates a bad impression and ultimately repel them:
“I find it very difficult to believe that recruiting managers will rely on a robot.”
“The candidate will come to the interview thinking: ‘Is this a place where I want to work? ‘Is this somebody I want to work with?’ They get their own gut feeling and it will affect their decision a great deal … I am very concerned about what robots may do to that part of the process.”