How Do We Feel About Being Managed By Machines?

The last year or so has seen any number of dystopian predictions that the robots are coming to disrupt the workplace.  Whilst most of these stories have focused on how the machines will take our jobs, the reality is more likely that they will support humans in the workplace.

Uber are a prime example of this, with ‘managers’ at the company as likely to be artificial intelligence systems as they are human managers.  A study published a few years ago explored the dynamics of this relationship.

The whole Uber process is largely human free, with drivers interacting primarily with the automated management system embedded within the mobile app.  This automated manager will assign them pickup requests, given them feedback on their performance, both in terms of their workload and passenger satisfaction, and even punishing them for not maintaining standards.

How Uber drivers feel about their AI bosses

Recent research from Penn State explored conversations between Uber drivers to try and understand how they felt about their AI bosses.

There was a clear distinction emerging from the study, as whilst Uber’s AI performed many of the functions of a manager, drivers felt they had little ability to air grievances, pitch new ideas or even influence changes to their work, all of which would be possible with a human manager.  This is compounded by the fact that most decisions made by Uber about their platform focuses on the customer rather than the driver.

“All of Uber’s different management decisions are embodied in the platform as the company’s platform is actually doing the management,” the authors say. “When we looked at it, Uber’s platform seems to focus on one user — the person who wants a ride — somewhat at the expense of the drivers.”

Autonomous or not

The relationship is crucial, as the vast majority of Uber drivers revealed that they joined the platform because of the autonomy on offer.  There have been lengthy discussions, many of them in courts around the world, about whether drivers are employees or independent contractors, but with the platform dictating behaviors to a large extent, it takes the independence you would associate with an independent contractor away.

“The drivers, who identify as independent, tend to chafe when they perceive the platform is trying to manage them,” the authors explain.

This inherent sense of fairness is crucial, as it underpins how people feel when they’re managed by AI-systems.  A previous study, from researchers at Carnegie Mellon, found that by and large, people are quite happy to be managed by AI.

There is a but however.  People were happy with an AI boss so long as everything was running smoothly.  If there were disagreements or things the employees wanted to change, then it resulted in a rapid deterioration in the relationship.

Suffice to say, Uber are perhaps an extreme example of AI management as they have so much data available on the market and the performance of each driver.  Whilst this environment may not be replicated entirely in other workplaces, our work environments are becoming more data-centric, and as such the rise of AI ‘managers’ seems inevitable.  Hopefully these early studies will help to guide the development and deployment of these technologies to ensure that an already disenfranchised workforce are not further disengaged.