Your Future Manager
Which would you prefer as a manager: a human or a robot?
Just over 10 years ago, I watched a computer, IBM Watson, defeat three colleagues in a game of Jeopardy. It was 2010, and I was in California attending a conference. Watson’s IBM engineers wanted to road-test their creation to see how well the computer could handle “natural language” – the idiosyncrasies of English versus the 0s and 1s of digital speak.
My colleagues were very smart. Watson, however, was smarter. But she (he? it?) did stumble occasionally, so the engineers went back to tinkering.
The tinkering worked. Less than a year later, Watson went on the real Jeopardy and demolished two of the TV quiz show’s all-time winners — Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter — pocketing a $1 million in prize money in the process.
Humans In The Workplace
This raised two questions: Do computers have pockets? And do humans have a future in the workplace?
In science fiction stories and Hollywood films, artificial intelligence (AI) is typically depicted as anything from mildly malevolent (HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) to diabolically dastardly (VIKKI in I, Robot). The robots never seem to come in peace.
All of this comes to mind as we emerge from COVID-induced lockdowns. For many employees, work-from-home has become the new normal. In a recent PricewaterhouseCooper survey, 55% of employers say they expect most of their people to continue working from home long after COVID fades away. A survey of employees by Upwork found that 38% expect to be working from home five years from now.
If you live in places like Ipswich — pleasant settings, but ones that often require a lengthy commute to get to the office — working from home can be alluring. You might even save time and money.
But how does a business manage people working remotely?
Decades ago, Peter Drucker wrote about “managing by walking around.” Decades before that, Frederick Winslow Taylor came up with his time-management methodology, one where managers stood over employees with stopwatches.
When people are working from home, that kind of in-person human oversight just is not possible.
But that might not be such a bad thing, according to Dr. Tommy Weir, founder of Boston-based enaible Inc. His company provides “AI-powered leadership” that he believes can prove superior to human front-line managers.
Even prior to COVID, the reputation of front-line managers was already wobbly. Gallup reported that bad front-line management costs the U.S. economy $450 billion or more in lost productivity per year.
For one thing, human managers carry very human-like prejudices, often without realizing it, as Pamela Fuller points out in her best-selling book Unconscious Bias.
An Unbiased AI Manager
An AI manager, on the other hand, does not care if you are black, white, yellow, or green, have a southern or northern accent, or are (or are not) a Red Sox fan. Nor will it engage in inappropriate behavior.
Today, managers have the added complication of learning how to work remotely themselves while trying their best to manage their distant teams. The results are often not pretty.
In theory at least, Dr. Weir’s AI manager is less about surveillance and control and more about coaching and feedback. Using an algorithm, it suggests ways to avoid distraction and prioritize work tasks, among other things.
In short, the AI manager is designed to make you not only more productive, but more successful. Perhaps even happier. I watched a demo, and I was impressed.
One thing Dr. Weir shared with me to prove his point regarding AI’s sophistication is that the Guardian newspaper, a quality UK publication, recently ran a column authored by an AI writer. The editors gave it a topic and a word limit, and it produced work as good or better than their editorial writers could muster. Nobody noticed it had been written by a machine.
So here is a final question: Did I write this column, or was it AI-generated? Only John Muldoon knows for sure.