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As artificial intelligence pushes beyond the tech industry, work could become fairer—or more oppressive

ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) is barging its way into business. As our special report  this week explains, firms of all types are harnessing AI to forecast  demand, hire workers and deal with customers. In 2017 companies spent  around $22bn on AI-related mergers and acquisitions, about 26 times more  than in 2015. The McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank within a  consultancy, reckons that just applying AI to marketing, sales and  supply chains could create economic value, including profits and  efficiencies, of $2.7trn over the next 20 years. Google’s boss has gone  so far as to declare that AI will do more for humanity than fire or  electricity.

Such grandiose forecasts kindle anxiety as  well as hope. Many fret that AI could destroy jobs faster than it  creates them. Barriers to entry from owning and generating data could  lead to a handful of dominant firms in every industry.

Less familiar, but just as important, is how AI will transform the  workplace. Using AI, managers can gain extraordinary control over their  employees. Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand  movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into  being more efficient. Workday, a software firm, crunches around 60  factors to predict which employees will leave. Humanyze, a startup,  sells smart ID badges that can track employees around the office and  reveal how well they interact with colleagues.

Surveillance at  work is nothing new. Factory workers have long clocked in and out;  bosses can already see what idle workers do on their computers. But AI  makes ubiquitous surveillance worthwhile, because every bit of data is  potentially valuable. Few laws govern how data are collected at work,  and many employees unguardedly consent to surveillance when they sign  their employment contract. Where does all this lead?

Trust and telescreens

Start  with the benefits. AI ought to improve productivity. Humanize merges  data from its badges with employees’ calendars and e-mails to work out,  say, whether office layouts favor teamwork. Slack, a workplace  messaging app, helps managers assess how quickly employees accomplish  tasks. Companies will see when workers are not just dozing off but also  misbehaving. They are starting to use AI to screen for anomalies in  expense claims, flagging receipts from odd hours of the night more  efficiently than a carbon-based beancounter can.

Employees will  gain, too. Thanks to strides in computer vision, AI can check that  workers are wearing safety gear and that no one has been harmed on the  factory floor. Some will appreciate more feedback on their work and  welcome a sense of how to do better. Cogito, a startup, has designed  AI-enhanced software that listens to customer-service calls and assigns  an “empathy score” based on how compassionate agents are and how fast  and how capably they settle complaints.

Machines can help ensure  that pay rises and promotions go to those who deserve them. That starts  with hiring. People often have biases but algorithms, if designed  correctly, can be more impartial. Software can flag patterns that people  might miss. Textio, a startup that uses AI to improve job descriptions,  has found that women are likelier to respond to a job that mentions  “developing” a team rather than “managing” one. Algorithms will pick up  differences in pay between genders and races, as well as sexual  harassment and racism that human managers consciously or unconsciously  overlook.

Yet AI’s benefits will come with many potential  drawbacks. Algorithms may not be free of the biases of their  programmers. They can also have unintended consequences. The length of a  commute may predict whether an employee will quit a job, but this focus  may inadvertently harm poorer applicants. Older staff might work more  slowly than younger ones and could risk losing their positions if all AI  looks for is productivity.

And surveillance may feel Orwellian—a  sensitive matter now that people have begun to question how much  Facebook and other tech giants know about their private lives. Companies  are starting to monitor how much time employees spend on breaks.  Veriato, a software firm, goes so far as to track and log every  keystroke employees make on their computers in order to gauge how  committed they are to their company. Firms can use AI to sift through  not just employees’ professional communications but their social-media  profiles, too. The clue is in Slack’s name, which stands for “searchable  log of all conversation and knowledge”.

Tracking the trackers

Some  people are better placed than others to stop employers going too far.  If your skills are in demand, you are more likely to be able to resist  than if you are easy to replace. Paid-by-the-hour workers in low-wage  industries such as retailing will be especially vulnerable. That could  fuel a resurgence of labor unions seeking to represent employees’  interests and to set norms. Even then, the choice in some jobs will be  between being replaced by a robot or being treated like one.

As  regulators and employers weigh the pros and cons of AI in the workplace,  three principles ought to guide its spread. First, data should be  anonymized where possible. Microsoft, for example, has a product that  shows individuals how they manage their time in the office, but gives  managers information only in aggregated form. Second, the use of AI  ought to be transparent. Employees should be told what technologies are  being used in their workplaces and which data are being gathered. As a  matter of routine, algorithms used by firms to hire, fire and promote  should be tested for bias and unintended consequences. Last, countries  should let individuals request their own data, whether they are  ex-workers wishing to contest a dismissal or job-seekers hoping to  demonstrate their ability to prospective employers.

The march of  AI into the workplace calls for trade-offs between privacy and  performance. A fairer, more productive workforce is a prize worth  having, but not if it shackles and dehumanizes employees. Striking a  balance will require thought, a willingness for both employers and  employees to adapt, and a strong dose of humanity.

 

 

 

Original Article by  The Economist/2018

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