Tuesday April 10, 2018

'I, Robot': Technology plays greater role in workplace environments

SUNY Oswego's Damian Schofield delves into human-computer interaction
By Lou Sorendo

    Damian Schofield


    Could your next boss be a robot?

     

    Given the rapid pace of technology, the concept is not as far-fetched as one might think.

     

    Damian Schofield is the director of human-computer interaction at SUNY Oswego, and said no boundaries exist when it comes to technology’s impact on the modern workplace.

     

    He teaches a graduate level course on transhumanism, which basically is a cultural and intellectual movement that believes people can and should improve the human condition through the use of advanced technologies.

     

    Companies are increasingly adopting software that uses algorithms to assign tasks to workers, sidelining human managers, reports The Wall Street Journal.

     

    “Interestingly, when we read about where these artificial intelligence algorithms are going to be replacing more jobs, it is not necessarily in the sectors one would expect,” Schofield said.

     

    For example, IBM’s supercomputer Watson recently watched thousands of movies and the trailers associated with each movie, he said.

     

    “The computer was then shown a new movie and automatically created the film’s trailer, indistinguishable from the human-made product,” Schofield said.

     

    Computer algorithms now regularly complete annual reports, news articles and product advertisements, he noted.

     

    “They even create the graphics and images to go along with these text items and produce the page layouts and infographics automatically,” he said.

     

    Schofield said self-driving cars are not going away and that they will have an “enormous effect on our economy.”

     

    “One only has to travel to the cities where these vehicles are being tested to see the impact,” he said. “I was recently in Pittsburgh and saw hundreds of self-driving taxis running around.”

     

    Schofield said when you consider how many people drive for a living (freight, schools, taxis, etc.) and drive as a principle mode of transportation, the economic shift could be staggering.

     

    Schofield noted that in the 1960s, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus said a computer would never play even a mediocre game of chess.

     

    He, like many others, believed chess required so much creative thinking that a computer could never play the game. A few months later, a chess computer defeated him. “This is what he is now famous for, rather than his philosophical writings,” Schofield said.

     

    “We all have a kind of human chauvinism, where we believe that the tasks and jobs we are capable of performing are 'special' and we could not be replaced,” he said. “What we are actually showing is not that computers are becoming more 'intelligent', but that we are realizing the tasks we perform are not that special or difficult.”

     

    Nonetheless, Schofield said human managers will always be overseeing job-related systems, but the use of automated systems means that there is a need for fewer managers.

     

    “In many situations, humans like to talk to other humans,” he noted.

     

    “Look at the kinds of things that are happening already. An employee working for a large fast-food organization may want to switch a shift,” Schofield said. “They submit the request online, the system checks the request and sends an automated text message to employees who are legally qualified to take the shift.

     

    “Another employee responds that they are willing to switch shifts, the system automatically adjusts the schedules and sends text messages to both employees confirming the new shifts.”

     

    What was once a strictly human process is now fully automated and less prone to errors since the system is always updated on the status of all the employees and legal guidelines which a human manager could miss,” Schofield said.

     

    In all actuality, no human intervention needs to happen.

     

    “However, no one wants to be fired by a text message,” he noted.

     

    What can we expect in the years to come in terms of the evolution of this type of software management tool?

     

    Well-known management consultant Walter Bennis said the factory of the future will feature only two employees — a human and a dog. The human is there only to feed the dog and the dog is there to bite the human if he or she touches anything.

     

    Human error is inevitable, and there is no doubt that machines can do many things better than humans, Schofield said.

     

    “But humans still like human contact in day-to-day operations. Humans will manage these systems and humans will still communicate with each other when they need to,” he said.

     

    Management by software: Reportedly, workforce management software sales have risen 23 percent over the last two years and are now worth $11.5 billion, with companies like GE and Shell on board.

     

    “Companies have always used algorithms to try to optimize their businesses. Think of the old traveling salesman problems, and the many ways large companies have tried to increase revenue by streamlining their logistics operations,” Schofield said.

     

    Workforce management software systems tend to focus on a specific issue in the workplace, such as project scheduling.

     

    “Yes, there has been a huge increase in the use of workforce management software in many large companies,” he said. “It is unlikely we will ever see a return to human-based scheduling and management of these resources.”

     

    Early systems focused on resource management, such as supply chain optimization and production planning.

     

    “However, as in many other industries, the power of the AI algorithms have allowed these systems to begin to be used in other areas such as human resources management, workforce management and corporate strategic planning,” he noted.

     

    Human resource management systems are used for tasks such as employee record-keeping, automated notifications and compliance reporting. “There is still a significant human input to the process,” Schofield noted.

     

    One of the ways large online retailers benefit from AI algorithms is through access to large amounts of historical data that show what their customers buy and what they have bought in the past.

     

    “In a similar manner, one of the key benefits of workforce management systems is their access to large amounts of historical data — such as the number and duration of customer contacts, sales figures, check-out transactions or orders to be handled,” Schofield said.

     

    This allows accurate current and future staffing predictions, peak load management, availabilities, holiday planning, and budget constraints. Also, it helps ensure all company policies and procedures follow current labor law guidelines and legislation, he added.

     

    In terms of cost benefit, economies of scale mean that significant savings have to be made by such a system to justify its cost, Schofield said.

     

    As a result, workforce management systems are widely used in larger companies rather than smaller businesses.

     

    “However, like all pervasive, disruptive technologies, the use of such systems will trickle down and subtly take over the operations of small businesses,” he said. “Eventually, managers will be controlling their businesses through a management app on their mobile phone as if they have always been running their business this way.”

     

    Impact of transhumanism: “Transhumanism is a difficult term to describe because many groups of people see it in different ways,” Schofield said. “It is an academic discipline, a political movement, and to some, it is a religious organization.”

     

    He said it deals with the transformation and augmentation of the human body using sophisticated technologies.

     

    “When we think about such things, we often think about the cyborgs we see in science fiction movies,” he said. “But, consider people who wear glasses. They are augmenting their abilities — vision in this instance — with a sophisticated technology.”

     

    Schofield said this piece of technology in many ways becomes part of what they are, changing them and giving them abilities they would not have without the glasses they wear every day.

     

    “Many of us are already cyborgs,” said Schofield in reference to beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.

     

    “In many ways, transhumanist technologies pervade our lives and become ubiquitous without us even noticing, he said.

     

    “We all own a personal device that connects us to all the known knowledge in the world — and we all see this as normal,” he said. “We talk to this device and it talks back — even in multiple languages, translating in real time. Now we can’t live without these devices.”

     

    Schofield noted this kind of pervasive technology is becoming integrated into the workplace.

     

    Machines take over more tasks without humans in the workforce explicitly noticing the changes, with new technology becoming commonplace and mundane, he added.

     

    “Look around you at the people you interact with. The UPS driver does not manually scan your package,” Schofield said. “A human does not read the information that is scanned; a machine processes this information and incorporates it into a human database.

     

    “The sending of packages, the routes chosen, even the products you buy are suggested to you by algorithms that mine huge amounts of data to determine your preferences.”

     

    Schofield said AI algorithms monitor the products consumers buy and change all the advertisements and movie recommendations one sees to tailor them to specific preferences.

     

    “The technology is already everywhere,” he said.

     

     

    — Avoiding unnecessary overtime, saving between 7-to-19 percent (The Aberdeen Group)

     

    — Avoiding disgruntled employees: Time theft costs approximately 5 percent of gross payroll (American Payroll Association)

     

    — Avoiding slow, redundant processes, saving 50-to-80 percent of payroll processing time (Workforce Software Data)

     

    — Avoiding large fines. In 2014, employers paid $240 million in back wages to 270,000 workers (U.S. Department of Labor)

     

    Commercial examples of workforce management software include such leadership/management functions as:

     

    — Recruiting (applicant tracking)

     

    — Onboarding, or the process of integrating a new employee into the organization and its culture

     

    — Performance management (assessment, goal management, succession planning)

     

    — Core human resources (personnel administration, benefits, compensation management, payroll)

     

    — Workforce management (absence management, activity tracking, scheduling, time and attendance)

     

    Benefits that drive leaders and managers to use workforce management software technology include:

     

    — Digital transformation of the business in response to new demands, such as online market forces

     

    — Restructuring and speeding up of human resource processes

     

    — Anticipate and address human capital risks

     

    — Better measurement of tasks and risks

     

    — Improved scheduling of time and attendance

     

    (Source: AppsRunThe World)

Oswego County Business Magazine
Issue 156

Issue 156
June/July 2018

Cover Story

Profiles

Carol Sweeney

On The Job

How Does Summer Affect Your Business?

Success Stories

Oliver B. Paine Greenhouses

My Turn

Honorary Doctorate Degrees — Should They Be Eliminated?

Economic Trends

Fifteen semi-finalists competing for a $50,000 prize

Last Page

Paul Stewart