Discussions of how artificial intelligence will impact the workforce often focus on the potential for mass unemployment, the increases in productivity, and the ways in which dull, menial tasks can be shirked off to computers. We consider less often the effects of actually spending the day in a workplace increasingly dominated by robots and AI.
In a survey of literature carried out by professors at King Abdulaziz University, the researchers found that there are both positive and negative effects on employee motivation associated with the increased use of robots in the workplace. In one example, the use of robots to take on nursing duties reduced overwork that was directly related to burnout in the surveyed institutions, but concerns about job-stealing robots left some workers wary.
Another study that looks into the actual practice of working with machines was published by Cornell University and showed that a productive computer might make humans less effective. In a series of experiments placing humans in competition against a machine, it was found that workers who were outpaced by a machine doing the same task as them became demoralized, ranked their own competence lower and claimed to like the device less than workers who had been paired with a machine that was worse or equal to them in productivity.
Notably, when outclassed by a machine, offering the human a chance at a cash prize was unable to improve their motivation in a statistically significant way. The authors of this study were initially quite surprised at these findings, as it suggests that merely giving people more money will not be an effective solution to the problem of how working with machines makes us feel.
These results shouldn’t surprise us. The idea that people won’t mind working with computers or robots as long as they don’t appear to us as uncanny monsters ignore the fact that people are often motivated by things other than just making money. Being confronted by a machine that outperforms them is going to drain their ability to take pride in their work. Being put alongside an unfeeling machine is going to make them wonder how much meaning their work really has. Dealing with an unemotive machine is going to leave them isolated.
We must remember that people need to work with people and that artificial intelligence is still incapable of compelling water cooler talk, enjoying a drink after work, or fully joining in during the annual holiday party. While robots might make for great employees, they are not yet ideal coworkers. It is not difficult to imagine that a workplace that over automates would see a severe decline in morale as the humans who remain become alienated.
Automation is the way of the future for many workplaces. However, we must remember that there is more to an effective workplace than the productivity gains made by adding a new machine. The question of how to properly integrate robots and automated systems with human workers must be answered if the full power of artificial intelligence is to be harnessed.