Are AI systems team players?

Marko Balabanovic
Digital Catapult
Published in
10 min readAug 5, 2019

Robot teams face off in the 2015 Robocup finals, held in Hefei, China, July 22, 2015. Jianan Yu / Reuters from Al Jazeera

This post also published by Business User magazine in Germany: Sind KI-Systeme Team-Player?

We’re overrun with predictions about AI systems taking people’s jobs, expressed in numbers and percentages and trillions of dollars. But all the jobs I’ve ever had have always been in organisations, in teams, with colleagues and structures, social dynamics and office politics. The question we should be asking is: what role will AI systems take in organisations? Will they be managers? Or co-workers? Or just better tools we can use?

AI as a manager

If you think you’ve never met someone whose manager is an AI system, think again. Every Uber driver’s work is allocated by an algorithm; they have just 15 seconds to accept or reject a ride request, without knowing the destination or fare. Their performance is reviewed automatically, their pay is determined by the system, and if their ratings drop too low that same system will deny them work. Morale boosting motivation comes from an app, and their recourse to help is a customer service agent in a faraway country rather than a human manager. AI recruitment systems are screening candidates. In fact, in organisations around the world, AI systems are performing every traditional management function already¹. But today’s AI managers are creating dehumanised systems where workers are treated without respect or dignity. 90% of Amazon’s Madrid logistics staff walked off the job during Black Friday in 2018, there were protests at 5 sites across the UK, and in Staten Island workers are trying to be the first to unionise among US Amazon staff. AI-managed staff protest their working conditions with banners that read “We are not robots”. Ironically it is their managers who are robots.

Constant surveillance, gamified incentives and micro-management of tasks would not be considered positive traits in a modern manager, but this is how today’s automated AI systems behave in managerial roles. We clearly have some work to do² before we can make a success of AI management.

Humans protesting AI management (GMBunion@Amazon/Twitter)

AI as a tool

Marko Balabanovic
Digital Catapult

Technology at Our Future Health