Mere machines may calculate your chances of landing that computer job

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Not content with taking over work, computers are now automating the process of selecting human employees. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, on how machines are making choices that change our lives.

When a new cable channel advertised for production staff, it expected to get a few hundred replies. Instead it received 5,000 CVs. Within days the four people whittling them down to "only 120" were so desperate to find some unusual characteristic that they began choosing people whose names could be found in Boney M songs.

"It was immensely painful," said Debbie Mason, a founding director of Rapture TV in Norwich. While smaller companies are struggling with a blizzard of applications, larger ones are turning to computers, meaning many letters are never reviewed by people before being rejected. Alan Whitford, managing director of the UK subsidiary of Resumix, one of two main rivals in this field, said: "We use artificial-intelligence systems which can search for 'skills' - which might be defined as geographical, educational or work experience - and test those against 'rules'."

The result is that a shortlist of any size can be drawn up from any number of applications. Although such systems have been used in the US for a decade, they have only arrived in the UK in the past couple of years, though they are used by the BBC, British Airways and British Telecom, which employ a computing package from a US company called Restrac.

"Ours is the only product that safely considers every word in a candidate's CV," said Greg Mancusi, marketing director of Restrac. It does this by indexing every word in the CV and ranking it against the recruiter's standards.

However, Mr Whitford said such word-based systems "don't find people they ought to find. You might not write down that you have leadership skills, but it would be clear from the context. Our system will find that."

Both systems could be flummoxed, though, by a CV which said the applicant led a life "searching for leadership, and managed somehow to keep out of department stores", because it contains key words - leadership, managed, and department.

Under the Data Protection Bill, which should become law later this year, anyone who suspects their application has been rejected by a machine will have the right to have it re-examined by a person. But it is not clear whether recruiting companies will have to inform people they use such machines.

While the systems might be effective in weighing up applicants for jobs which require a narrow set of skills - such as a particular computer system, accounts experience and more than one language - it is unclear how they would do in sorting through the letters that come in from people seeking creative jobs. Rapture TV's ad said it was a "revolutionary new cable TV channel for teenagers" and was looking for "bright, dynamic and energetic people" with "many years broadcast experience or ... a media studies degree."

Asked how Restrac would cope with that, Mr Mancusi said: "The idea is to determine which CVs you want to spend more time with. So you are going to look for hard skills - looking for key words such as camera operating, video formats ... Our product would then rank every CV in order."