An artificial intelligence (AI) hiring system has become a powerful gatekeeper for some employers, reshaping how companies assess their workforce.

Designed by the recruiting-technology firm HireVue, the system uses candidates’ computer or cellphone cameras to analyse their facial movements, word choice and speaking voice before ranking them against other applicants based on an automatically generated “employability” score.

HireVue’s “AI-driven assessments” have become so pervasive in some industries, including hospitality and finance, that universities make special efforts to train students on how to look and speak for best results. More than 100 employers now use the system, including Hilton and Unilever, and more than a million job seekers have been analysed.

But some AI researchers have argued that the system is a digital snake oil, an unfounded blend of superficial measurements and arbitrary number-crunching that is not rooted in scientific fact. Analysing a human being like this, they argued, could end up penalising non-native speakers, visibly nervous interviewees or anyone else who doesn’t fit the model for look and speech.

The system, they argued, will assume a critical role in helping decide a person’s career. But they doubt it even knows what it is looking for: just what does the perfect employee look and sound like, anyway?

Co-founder of the AI Now Institute, a research center, Meredith Whittaker, said: “It’s a disturbing development that we have proprietary technology that claims to differentiate between a productive worker and a worker who isn’t fit based on their facial movements, their tone of voice, and their mannerisms.”
“It’s pseudoscience. It’s a licence to discriminate,” she added. “The people whose lives and opportunities are literally being shaped by these systems don’t have any chance to weigh in.”

Loren Larsen, HireVue’s chief technology officer, said that such criticism is uninformed and that “most AI researchers have a limited understanding” of the psychology behind how workers think and behave.

He compared the algorithms’ ability to boost hiring outcomes with medicine’s improvement of health outcomes and said science backed him up. The system, he said, is still more objective than the flawed metrics used by human recruiters, whose thinking he called the “ultimate black box”.

“People are rejected all the time based on how they look, their shoes, how they tucked in their shirts and how ‘hot’ they are,” he told The Washington Post. “Algorithms eliminate most of that in a way that hasn’t been possible before.”

The AI, he said, doesn’t explain its decisions or give candidates their assessment scores, which he called “not relevant”. But it is “not logical,” to assume some people might be unfairly eliminated by the automated judge.

“When 1 000 people apply for one job, 999 people are going to get rejected, whether a company uses AI or not.”

The inscrutable algorithms have forced job seekers to confront a new kind of interview anxiety. Nicolette Vartuli, a university senior studying maths and economics with a 3.5 GPA, said she researched and did her best to dazzle the job-interview machine. She answered confidently and in the time allotted. She used positive keywords. She smiled, often and wide.

But when she didn’t get the investment banking job, she couldn’t see how the computer had rated her or ask how she could improve, and she agonised over what she had missed. Had she not looked friendly enough? Did she talk too loudly? What did the AI hiring system believe she had gotten wrong?

“I feel like that’s maybe one of the reasons I didn’t get it: I spoke a little too naturally,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t use enough big, fancy words.”
HireVue said its system dissects the tiniest details of candidates’ responses – their facial expressions, their eye contact and perceived “enthusiasm” – and compiles reports companies can use in deciding whom to hire or disregard.Human hiring managers can use other factors, beyond the score, to decide which candidates pass the first-round test.

The system employs superhuman precision and impartiality to zero in on an ideal employee, picking up on telltale clues a recruiter might miss.
Major employers with lots of high-volume, entry-level openings are increasingly turning to such automated systems to help find candidates, assess CVs and streamline hiring. The Silicon Valley start-up AllyO, for instance, advertises a “recruiting automation bot” that can text-message a candidate, “Are you willing to relocate?” 

The employer decides the written questions, which HireVue’s system then shows the candidate while recording and analysing their responses. The AI assesses how a person’s face moves to determine, for instance, how excited someone seems about a certain work task or how they would behave around angry customers. Those “Facial Action Units,” Mondragon said, can make up 295 of a candidates’s score; the words they say and the “audio features” of their voice, like their tone, make up the rest.

“Humans are inconsistent by nature. They inject their subjectivity into the evaluations,” Mondragon said. “But AI can database what the human processes in an interview, without bias… and humans now believe in machine decisions over human feedback.”

To train the system on what to look for and tailor the test to a specific job, the employer’s current workers filling the same job –  “the entire spectrum, from high to low achievers” – sit through the AI assessment, Larsen said.

Their responses, he said, are then matched with a “benchmark of success” from those workers’ past job performance, like how well they had met their sales quotas and how quickly they had resolved customer calls. 

This article first appeared in the Washington Post.

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