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Meet the New Boss: The World’s First Artificial-Intelligence Manager?

Last week, the Japanese multinational conglomerate Hitachi quietly issued an intriguing announcement. Apparently, the company has appointed its first AI boss.

Well, kinda-sorta. The announcement details a new initiative in which artificial intelligence (AI) technology is being used to determine workflows and employee duties in real time. Specifically, an AI “boss” was put in charge of a warehouse management system, where it managed to effect an 8 percent increase in efficiency among its human servants workers.

The opening paragraph of the press release is worth quoting in full:

Hitachi, Ltd. announced today, the development of AI technology which provides appropriate work orders based on an understanding of demand fluctuation and on-site kaizen activity derived from big data accumulated daily in corporate business systems, and its verification in logistics tasks by improving efficiency by 8%. By integrating the AI into business systems, it may become possible to realize efficient operations in a diverse range of areas through human and AI cooperation.

(Sounds like a fun place to work, doesn’t it? The language in the Hitachi press release is a little…"dense" is probably the polite term. That may partly be a Japanese-English translation issue, but I suspect the Corporate Jargon-English translation issue is the bigger problem.)

Who’s the boss?

Of course, we’ve seen all kinds of automation introduced into the workplace over the years, from the Industrial Revolution to modern IT infrastructures. But this project is different. The AI system isn’t just automating routine tasks. It’s actually adjusting work orders on the fly, basing its decisions on enormous, cumulonimbus swirls of Big Data stored up the Cloud.

In this case, those weather metaphors are no joke. The Hitachi AI is programmed to adjust work flows depending on what the weather’s like (among other factors). So forget about blaming that snowstorm for being late or delaying a deadline: The boss already knows about the snow and has already Made Appropriate Corrections.

The really fascinating stuff involves the integration of artificial intelligence with the concept of kaizen — the business philosophy common in Japan that encourages workers and managers to constantly improve their personal efficiency.

According to kaizen, workers should implement new approaches based on their personal experience. But Hitachi’s AI system adds a new twist to that system: “The AI automatically analyzes the outcome of these new approaches, and selects processes which produce better results and applies it to the next work order.”


No more awkward bar crawls

This is a classic good-news/bad-news scenario, I think. The good news is that putting an AI in charge would mean everyone gets a rational boss — like, rational in the binary sense. No mean feat, that. Also, the AI boss would presumably not be “inviting” you out to mandatory dinner parties or sporting events or whatever.

The bad news is that we really could be putting the machines in charge. We could no longer fool ourselves about the impending robot revolution, even though AI systems are already learning how to evolve, fight, and even dream.  

The dawning of the AI boss would also mean a profound change in our culture generally. We can expect a radical shift in New Yorker cartoons for one thing. Workplace situation comedies would take a hit. And gossip, naturally. Who wants to gossip about an AI boss? It’s like gossiping about the refrigerator.

One more detail from the official announcement: Having concluded the test run on warehouse logistics, Hitachi intends to apply the AI to other areas including finance, transport, manufacturing, healthcare, public works and distribution, in order to — and I quote — “contribute to business operations which can respond flexibly to changes in society in an efficient manner.”

If you’re in the mood to indulge that feeling of slowly percolating paranoia, you can read more about the AI boss initiative — complete with enigmatic graphs and charts! — at the Hitachi’s corporate information page.

Glenn McDonald writes about the intersections of technology and culture at glenn-mcdonald.com and via Twitter @glennmcdonald1.