Big Brother is Watching

I have been following the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, particularly in the corporate employment sphere, and I’m feeling both trepidation and relief, glad I don’t work in that environment anymore. Big Brother has arrived at the corporation. I’m also having difficulty separating the human from the robot, for the two are emerging from opposite corners to resemble each other, even battle each other. And I wonder who will slay whom before the dust settles.

Take Hapless Harry, telephone sales agent at ABC Software, on the phone with a customer who has called in to complain about a product purchased online. While trying to sort out the customer’s  current product dilemma, Harry’s screen is being bombarded with continual AI-generated prompts for cross-sellable products that fit this customer’s profile and purchasing habits. The poor customer will therefore end up being offered everything else but a solution to his defective product problem from Harry. And while at it, Harry’s keystrokes are being monitored for boredom, accuracy, efficiency and honesty—yeah, Big Brother is even watching the documents he is reading or stealing. When Harry takes a break, CCTV monitors how much time he spends with colleagues, how much time he spends listening versus speaking, and follows his whereabouts inside the corporate building. And Big Brother also knows how likely Harry is to leave the company based on his vacation times, time between vacations, and the managers to whom he reports. And by pulling together Harry’s calendar, e-mail and Internet search data, Big Brother has his number as to whether Harry multi-tasks, keeps in touch with customers, or just goofs off. To management, Harry’s employee picture is now complete, unbeknownst to old Hapless.

I used to discard this scenario from ever becoming reality. This was science fiction. This level of micro management was not worth the effort by a supervisor to maintain on an employee, I reasoned. And where was that business about “releasing human potential” espoused by twentieth century management gurus such as Follett, Maslow and Herzberg? Would we be foolish enough to revert back to some mechanistic model on steroids that even the vilified “time and motion” czar Frederick Taylor couldn’t have conceived? But then I realized that we were now in the twenty-first century, and in this new world, Big Brother isn’t a human supervisor. BB is a robot running on AI, crunching reams of data about the likes of Hapless Harry and producing concise reports at the click of a keystroke on Harry’s boss’s laptop. No human effort is required to have this employee, and all employees, shadowed.

Employee surveillance has always been a desired end. Hence time clocks, punch cards, supervisory desks facing employee desks, roll calls, call monitoring, attendance registers and other primitive tools that didn’t quite do the job. But now we are in Employee Surveillance Nirvana, thanks to Big Brother.

The question is how good is Big Brother at his job? AI only improves upon the next iteration of the previous version, and the experiences learned there from. AI is only as good as the moral code of its designer. Is AI developed to the point that it is capable of making judgments on humans, or is it still a slave merely providing reports for humans to make that call? And what happens to the humans caught up in the data gathering, who may be treated unfairly while Big Brother is growing up and honing his skills?

One thing I know is that Big Brother is sexy, even sexier than Big Sister (a.k.a. sex doll). Everyone wants to invest in him, no matter what the collateral damage. The desire to see where this technology can lead us has overshadowed consideration for humans like Hapless Harry who are still performing the work, those who will be run over by the robot with the latter’s promise of “always on, works for free with 99.9% accuracy”. Dilbert is having a field day of late, portraying AI-related dysfunction in the workplace.

Our fascination with bleeding edge technology reminds me of the old dot-com era when we built solutions in search of a problem; and when the house collapsed, how we realized that the money, like the software, was vapourware. Should we kill Big Brother now before he becomes another Frankenstein? Of course not, it’s too late for that. But we need to groom him to become a responsible adult in society, and send him out to work only when he is qualified and mature to enter the workforce, just like his human colleagues. And that begins with being good parents ourselves – Dear Employer, here’s looking at you kiddo!

And most importantly, we need to figure out how to keep Hapless Harry in the money after he has been put out to pasture, so that he can continue to buy stuff from his replacement, Big Brother, who will be at the other end of the phone line cross selling Harry all sorts of unneeded products in order to keep the economy humming.

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