I wrote recently about the growing importance of developing skills to work alongside the next generation of AI-powered technologies. A recent paper from the University of Pennsylvania explores the increasingly common scenario of working alongside robots.
It suggests that, at the moment at least, there is often a fall in efficiency and productivity in such scenarios because the introduction of automation destabilizes human teams.
“The attraction of machines and robots is the potential increase in efficiency and the reduction in the cost of getting things done,” the researchers explain. “On the other hand, you have to think about the behavioral reactions of men and women who are now working alongside machines instead of humans.”
The researchers developed a model with two employees overseen by a single manager. They then ran a number of scenarios, some of which the task was performed by a two human team, and some that were performed by a team consisting of a human and a machine.
The results revealed some interesting nuances. For instance, if the technology requires fundamental changes not only in the way the human works but also how they are assessed and compensated, it may not deliver the benefits you hope for.
The research also uncovered some potential complications around compensation. At the moment, most organizations award compensation based upon the effort of a collective. This obviously has the disadvantage that it rewards shirkers as much as hard workers so long as the team meet their target. Some firms deviate from this and pay employees purely for individual effort. Whichever approach is used, there is a motivation to observe how your colleagues are performing.
This becomes interesting when your peer is a robot rather than a human. The authors believe that this inclusion of team dynamics is crucial when assessing the costs/benefits of introducing new technologies.
The authors also suggest that the introduction of technology might also hamper efforts by managers to accurately gauge performance levels among the team. With this monitoring capability reduced, it might encourage the humans in the team to slack off.
New ways of working
Suffice to say, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The development of AI is a situation that Erik Brynjolfsson likens to the development of electricity, which was a general purpose technology that didn’t boost productivity on it’s own, but did when technologies, processes and business models were built on top of it.
This was an opinion shared in the Accenture report I referenced at the start of this post. They suggest that the first generation of automation investment has seen technology work largely in isolation, but the true gains will come from when man and machine can work more effectively together. Indeed, they believe such integration can boost profits by 38%. Increasingly, we will have to work alongside AI, with autonomous decision support services augmenting our decision making.
It isn’t the case (indeed, it probably never is) that we simply buy the technology and take in the gains. Instead, it will require a proper understanding of the workflows of your team, and how new technology will impact those workflows, on both an overt and covert level.
“Automation and AI are changing us — it’s changing organizations,” the Wharton team say. “People need to realize that organizations will have to be redesigned around automation. We have to think about what’s happening to the individuals who keep their jobs – their lives are changing, too. Nobody is talking about that.”