“The goal of automation has always been efficiency. What if artificial intelligence sees humanity itself as the thing to be optimized?” K. Roose, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of the insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing. Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.
Sound sleepy? The software displays an ‘energy cue,’ with a picture of a coffee cup.
Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.
For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.
Mr. Sprouls and the other call center workers at his office inR.I., still have plenty of human supervisors. But the software on their screens — made by Cogito, an A.I. company in Boston — has become a kind of adjunct manager, always watching them.
At the end of every call, Mr. Sprouls’s Cogito notifications are tallied and added to a statistics dashboard that his supervisor can view. If he hides the Cogito window by minimizing it, the program notifies his supervisor.
Cogito is one of several A.I. programs used in call centers and other workplaces. The goal, according to Josh Feast, Cogito’s chief executive, is to make workers more effective by giving them real-time feedback. ‘There is variability in human performance,’ Mr. Feast said. ‘We can infer from the way people are speaking with each other whether things are going well or not.’
But using A.I. to manage workers in conventional, 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees.
And while it’s clear why executives would want A.I. that can track everything their workers do, it’s less clear why workers would…Amazon uses complex algorithms to track worker productivity in its fulfillment centers, and can automatically generate the paperwork to fire workers who don’t meet their targets, as The Verge uncovered this year.
(Amazon has disputed that it fires workers without human input, saying that managers can intervene in the process.) IBM has used Watson, its A.I. platform, during employee reviews to predict future performance and claims it has a 96 percent accuracy rate.
Then there are the start-ups. Cogito, which works with large insurance companies like MetLife and Humana as well as financial and retail firms, says it has 20,000 users. Percolata, a Silicon Valley company that counts Uniqlo and 7-Eleven among its clients, uses in-store sensors to calculate a ‘true productivity’ score for each worker, and rank workers from most to least productive…Using A.I. to correct for human biases is a good thing. But as more A.I. enters the workplace, executives will have to resist the temptation to use it to tighten their grip on their workers and subject them to constant surveillance and analysis. If that happens, it won’t be the robots staging an uprising.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer
Directions:Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have themexamine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- People have fearfully imagined armies of robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs.
- Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer.
- Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.
- At the end of every call, Mr. Sprouls’s Cogito notifications are tallied.
- Cogito is one of several A.I. programs used in call centers.
- The goal of automation has always been efficiency.
- Amazon uses complex algorithms to track worker productivity.
- Amazon has disputed that it fires workers without human input.
- Human managers can intervene in the process.
- Mr. Sprouls feels that the software on his screen has become a kind of adjunct manager, always watching him.
Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage
Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.
Cogito is one of several A.I. programs use in call centers.
There is variability in human performance.
The goal of automation has always been efficiency.
It is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers.
It actually changes peoples behavior without them knowing about it.
Defenders of workplace A.I. might argue that these systems are not meant to be overbearing.
Some wonder why anyone wouldwant to be judged on a computer.
There were no protests at MetLife’s call center.
Still, there is a creepy sci-fi vibe to a situation in which A.I. surveils human workers.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentencestaken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
The best___ for workplace A.I. may be___in which ___bias skews decision-making, such as hiring. Pymetrics, a ___start-up, has made___in the corporate hiring world by replacing the ___résumé ___process with an A.I. program that uses a series of games to test for ___skills. The algorithms are then ___to make sure they are not ___biased hiring outcomes, or favoring one ___over another.
WORDLIST: creating, analyzed, relevant, screening, traditional, New York human, group, inroads, situations, argument
- Have you ever worked for (or with) robots? If so, describe your experience.
- Do you think it might be fun working for a robot? Why or why not?
- In your opinion would automated systems be able to judge a person’s work performance fairly? Please explain why or why not.
- What would you do if you found out that your new ‘boss’ was a robot?
- The article states, “Using A.I. to correct for human biases is a good thing. But as more A.I. enters the workplace, executives will have to resist the temptation to use it to tighten their grip on their workers and subject them to constant surveillance and analysis. If that happens, it won’t be the robots staging an uprising.” Explain what this means. Provide an example.
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.
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