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My teammate the bot—really?

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Pendulum swings

When the mainframe/minicomputer era gave way to the PC in the 1980s, a much broader swath of the population got to marvel at the proficiency of a spreadsheet program to add quickly and accurately across the largest flocks of data. So all was well, until everyone experienced their first formula error, and the light dawned that garbage in led directly to garbage out, and careers could hang in the balance if that occurred in a boardroom setting.

With the arrival of the smartphone, everyone on the planet had the potential to access information, data, working aides lined up in apps, social media sharing environments—and everyone was now exposed to identity theft and malignant software of unprecedented sophistication and effectiveness.

So history tells us that our relationship with our computers is driven by pendulum swings between enthusiasm, hope and the promise of computers to deliver a better world and the opposite pole of outrage, frustration and injury at the perverse ability of computers to deliver adverse consequences and expose businesses and individuals to previously unimaginable risks.

So, will we soon be conversing like old friends with our corporate Alexas, Siris, Cortanas and Google Businesses? Sharing stories about what we did over the weekend? Sharing picks for the NCAA Final Four? Or will we be guarding our words so as not to allow the microphone to hear anything that could be held against us at the next quarterly employee review? And how will we respond if we suspect that one of our colleagues or competitors has found a way to hack into our Alexa and use its learning systems to render it harmful or incapable, one or the other or both?

So far, we don’t have a lot of experience to go by as we consider our next-generation work life with these intelligent machines. One of the most popular trends in the past year or two has been the chatbot boom. Early experimenters hoping to integrate chatbots into, for example, customer experience enhancements, have had mixed results. The technology is still new, still unpredictable. And in applications like customer experience, pilot implementations have tended to prove all the potential foibles and mistakes rather than bring about a miraculous improvement of customer care.

So we have a long way to go. Will our next-generation working relationship with machine intelligence be a Hal-like experience? Will it have its seductive side, driven by our fantasies similar to a “Her” experience?

As we move into the augmentation era, it lies with us to understand with the highest possible level of specificity the cognitive tasks we are asking the machine to accomplish. That task in itself is a major undertaking. But only when we have mastered it will we be able to spend quality time to establish the ground rules for ethical working relationships between ourselves and those increasingly intelligent devices. 

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