Would You Work for a Robot?


Robots are the norm in industrial contexts. We’ve also gotten used to the idea that they’ll soon be the norm for plenty of other kinds of jobs, replacing humans in work roles from models to fast food workers. But would you want a robot as a supervisor?

Harvard Business Review  came up with some pros and cons of robot managers. Previous studies of human managers, they point out, have determined that only half of managers are successful. Robots won’t have to go very far to beat that record.

HBR figures robots can take up the challenge by making fair, unemotional decisions, conveying feedback honestly without bias, and making data-driven decisions. Robot managers won’t rely on their guts or fly by the seat of their pants, because they have no guts and no pants.

On the other hand, machines might miss some nuances. The authors give the example of a robot that has information showing that women are less likely to be in positions of power and black men are more likely to be in jail. Without the background knowledge about discrimination that a human manager would have, the robot could decide to hire only non-black men. This same problem is reflected in robots’ inability to deal well with complexities. Actions like turning a doorknob or folding laundry can completely defeat a robot. So why would you expect a robot to cope well with changes in the market or social media policy for new hires?

The authors conclude that robots’ emotional lack, which could be an advantage is some situations, could also be a negative. People like people, after all.

MIT and Google have both run studies which demonstrated that human aspects of managerial performance have an effect on human workers. Broadly speaking, people don’t like being bossed around by machinery. They don’t like feeling as though they’re being treated like machines. They work better with things like respect and friendliness as part of the equation.

But the success of machine overlords like Fitbit, which tracks and rewards steps and sleep patterns, and Carrot, a bossy to-do list app, show that people are beginning to accept and appreciate algorithm-based supervision. Maybe being able to choose among communication styles would help.

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