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A.I.. Can't take your job, but it can be your boss



When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the insurance giant MetLife, calls a customer over the phone, he keeps an eye on the bottom right corner of the screen. There, in a small blue box, A.I. tells him how he does.

Speaking too fast? The program flashes an icon for a speedometer that indicates that it should brake.

Sound sleepy? The software displays an "energy source" with an image of a coffee cup.

Not empathetic enough? A heart icon appears.

For decades, people have terribly imagined the armies of hypereffective robots invading offices and factories, and working up jobs once done by humans. But in all worries about the potential for artificial intelligence to replace rank and file workers, we may have overlooked the opportunity to replace the bosses.

Herr. Sprouls and the other call center workers in his office in Warwick, R.I, still have many human tutors. But the software on their screens – made by Cogito, an A.I. company in Boston – has become a kind of adjunct leader, always looking at them. At the end of each call, Mr. Sproul's Cogito notifications are busy and added to a statistical panel that his supervisor can see. If he hides the Cogito window by minimizing it, the program informs its supervisor.

Cogito is one of several A.I. applications used in call centers and other workplaces. The goal, according to Joshua Feast, Cogito's CEO, is to make workers more effective by giving them real-time feedback.

"There is variation in human performance," said Mr. Feast. "We can derive from how people talk to each other whether it goes well or not."

The goal of automation has always been efficiency, but in this new type of workplace, A.I. sees humanity as a thing to be optimized. Amazon uses complex algorithms to track workers' productivity in its fulfillment centers, and can automatically generate paperwork for workers who fail to meet their goals, as The Verge was uncovered this year. (Amazon denies that it burns workers without human recording and says managers can intervene in the process.) IBM has used Watson, its A.I. platform, during employee reviews to predict future performance and claim that it has an accuracy of 96 percent.

Then there are the startups. Cogito, which works with major insurance companies like MetLife and Humana, as well as finance and retail, says it has 20,000 users. Percolata, a Silicon Valley company that counts Uniqlo and 7-Eleven among its customers, uses store sensors to calculate a "true productivity" score for each employee, and rank workers from most to least productive.

Algorithm control is not a new concept. In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized the manufacturing world with its "scientific leadership" theory, which attempted to turn inefficiencies out of factories by counting and measuring every aspect of a job. More recently, Uber, Lyft and other on-demand platforms have made thousands of dollars by outsourcing conventional human resources tasks – planning, payroll, performance assessments – to computers.

But by A.I. Controlling workers in conventional 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using management algorithms and say that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. And while it is clear why managers want A.I. Who can trace all their workers do is less clear why workers would.

There were no protests at MetLife's call center. Instead, the employees I talked to saw their Cogito software as a mild irritation at worst. Several said they liked getting pop-up alerts during the conversation, although some said they had struggled to figure out how to get the "empathy" alert to stop showing. (Cogito says that AI analyzes subtle differences in tone between the worker and the caller and encourages the worker to try to mirror the customer's mood.)

MetLife, which uses the software with 1,500 of its customer centers, says that using the app has increased customer satisfaction by 13 percent.

Defenders in the workplace A.I. can claim that these systems are not meant to be overbearing. Instead, they are supposed to make workers better by reminding them to thank the customer, to empathize with the frustrated sue on line 1 or to avoid slacking on the job.


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