Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees.
When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing.
Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.
Sound sleepy? The software displays an “energy cue,” with a picture of a coffee cup.
Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.
For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.
Sprouls and the other call center workers at his office in Warwick, Rhode Island, still have plenty of human supervisors. But the software on their screens — made by Cogito, an A.I. company in Boston — has become a kind of adjunct manager, always watching them. At the end of every call, Sprouls’ Cogito notifications are tallied and added to a statistics dashboard that his supervisor can view. If he hides the Cogito window by minimizing it, the program notifies his supervisor.
Cogito is one of several A.I. programs used in call centers and other workplaces. The goal, according to Joshua Feast, Cogito’s chief executive, is to make workers more effective by giving them real-time feedback.
“There is variability in human performance,” Feast said. “We can infer from the way people are speaking with each other whether things are going well or not.”
The goal of automation has always been efficiency, but in this new kind of workplace, A.I. sees humanity itself as the thing to be optimized. Amazon uses complex algorithms to track worker productivity in its fulfillment centers, and can automatically generate the paperwork to fire workers who don’t meet their targets, as The Verge uncovered this year. (Amazon has disputed that it fires workers without human input, saying that managers can intervene in the process.) IBM has used Watson, its A.I. platform, during employee reviews to predict future performance and claims it has a 96% accuracy rate.
Then there are the startups. Cogito, which works with large insurance companies like MetLife and Humana as well as financial and retail firms, says it has 20,000 users. Percolata, a Silicon Valley company that counts Uniqlo and 7-Eleven among its clients, uses in-store sensors to calculate a “true productivity” score for each worker, and rank workers from most to least productive.
Management by algorithm is not a new concept. In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized the manufacturing world with his “scientific management” theory, which tried to wring inefficiency out of factories by timing and measuring each aspect of a job. More recently, Uber, Lyft and other on-demand platforms have made billions of dollars by outsourcing conventional tasks of human resources — scheduling, payroll, performance reviews — to computers.
But using A.I. to manage workers in conventional, 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. And while it’s clear why executives would want A.I. that can track everything their workers do, it’s less clear why workers would.“
It is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers without any human involvement,” Marc Perrone, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food and retail workers, said in a statement about Amazon in April.