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Meet your new AI boss

PhD candidate Robert Hunt investigates the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and office work
April 18, 2023
By Damon van der Linde, BA 08

There may be a time in the not-too-distant future when your promotion depends as much on a software program as the whims of your human manager.

Robert Hunt, MA 18, a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Studies, is investigating the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and office work. From hiring to firing, he says HR departments are increasingly using analytical software to manage their workforces.

“We could all be subjected to these algorithmic forms of management at some point,” Hunt warns.

Collecting data to monitor employees is already commonplace in some fields. The retail and transportation sectors have long used algorithms to track performance. The practice is particularly acute in high-stakes fields like health care and investment management.

“Accurately or not, office work is traditionally seen as more autonomous and creative,” says Hunt. “But we’re seeing these lines increasingly blurred.”

He admits that automation is helpful for some mundane tasks, yet is wary of its spread into employee well-being and other subjective areas where the threat of misuse is higher.

“Scanning messages to detect burnout might start from a well-intentioned place, but could also be wielded to flag words like ‘union,’” he explains.

Hunt is most concerned about how software could be used to determine whether an employee deserves a raise or a promotion, or whether they intend to quit.

“It’s pretty much impossible to make these determinations with absolute accuracy,” he says. “They’re trying to forecast people’s career trajectories using software that analyzes how you use a computer. But a computer can’t read your mind.”

Although the companies behind these technologies like to cite research demonstrating the efficacy of their software, Hunt says the data is often inconclusive or cherry-picked.

“These offices are being managed like laboratories, experimenting on workers with technologies and theories that are constantly updated,” he says.

As HR work becomes more automated, Hunt has one piece of advice for workers: “Think carefully about the freedoms you’re potentially giving up.”

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