Michael Schrage at Harvard Business Review warns his readers, “Stop swearing at Siri. Quit cursing Cortana,” arguing such behavior could soon be seen just as destructive to an organization as ridiculing a subordinate. In the 1993 film, Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone’s character, John Spartan, received multiple tickets from a wall box that overheard him violate the “Verbal Morality Statute” during a conversation with a colleague. [mature ears only please!] Spartan, who had been awoken from his cryogenic sleep, was not aware of the dramatic changes in technology that had taken place while he had been asleep. We see technological change every day, but we may not be ready for the far-reaching implications machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will have on society and the workplace.
Schrage describes how adaptive bots enable devices to learn from each encounter they have with humans, including negative ones, such as cursing at Siri or slamming a smartphone down when it reports about one restaurant, though the user was searching for a different eating place. Faced with repeated interactions like this, the bot is likely to be adversely affected by the bad behavior, and will fail to perform as intended. As companies leverage more of this technology to enhance worker productivity and customer interactions, employee abuse of bots will frustrate the company’s efforts and investment. That can lead to reduced profits and employee discipline.
Employees are seeing some of this already with the use of telematics in company vehicles. Telematics and related technologies provide employers with a much more detailed view of their employees’ use of company vehicles including location, movement, status and behavior of the vehicle and the employees. That detailed view results from the extensive and real time reports employers receive concerning employees’ use of company vehicles. Employers can see, for example, when their employees are speeding, braking too abruptly, or swerving to strongly. With some applications, employers also can continually record the activity and conversations inside the vehicle, including when vehicle sensors indicate there has been an accident. It is not hard to see that increased use of these technologies can result in more employee discipline, but also make employees drive more carefully.
Just as employers can generate records of nearly all aspects of the use of their vehicles by employees, there surely are records being maintained about the manner in which individuals interact with Siri and similar applications. While those records likely are currently being held and examined by the providers of the technology, that may soon change as organizations want to collect this data for their own purposes. Employers having such information could be significant.
As Mr. Schrage argues, making the most of new AI and machine learning technologies requires that the users of those technologies be good actors. In short, workers will need to be “good” people when interacting with machines that learn, otherwise, it will be more difficult for the machines to perform as intended. Perhaps this will have a positive impact on the bottom line as well as human interactions generally. But it also will raise interesting challenges for human resource professionals as they likely will need to develop and enforce policies designed to improve interactions between human employees and company machines.
We’ll have to see. But in the meantime, be nice to Siri!