Your productivity will drop in the next 5 minutes. It’s time to take this drug.

November 19, 2018

Future of Work

Photo credit : Dima Sidelnikov

IBM’s new patentDrone delivery of coffee based on a cognitive state of an individual” would see workers tracked by sensor data from a wearable or other tracking device. When the AI engine predicts that the worker’s productivity is likely to fall short, the system will administer caffeine – or some other stimulant – before the worker even thinks about it.

The patent describes a system in which data from wearables, cameras, past sleep patterns and even blood pressure or heart rate would augment contextual information, such as events  in the worker’s calendar for the day, or how many boxes they have to pack in the next hour.

The result would determine whether a hit of caffeine would help the worker to get more done. If so, IBM thinks it could be delivered by drone or some other machine to save the inconvenience – and productivity loss – of the worker stretching their legs with a walk to the coffee machine.

The patent goes further, suggesting that AI could be used to analyse a room and decide whose performance in a group is in need of a drug-induced enhancement:

…if it is known that a meeting participant is meeting with a senior supervisor, and the participant prefers coffee when under stress, the confidence level can be increased.

You can imagine a whole new form of social anxiety forming if you’re getting ready for a meeting and the system singles you out as being in need of a pickup.

Will other workers think you’ve recklessly indulged in a late night or mismanaged your own sleep? Will getting through the day without the system identifying you as a slacker in need of a push become a new form of promotion prospect-enhancing presenteeism?

When AI takes over deciding who gets promoted, you can imagine this being another data point used to mark someone down.

So, it seems like we’re now on the cusp of AI-controlled drugging of staff. What a great time to be alive.

What will this brave new world actually feel like to us humans?  

Or, more accurately, what is this brave new world going to feel like if you’re unlucky enough to be a human on the wrong end of the socio-economic curve?  If you’re the human that is really seen as a necessary inconvenience, someone we really wished we could automate or replace with a robot, but we just haven’t made enough technical advances yet?

It was 1888 when Harold Bundy invented the punched card time clock. For the first time, technology could be used to control and measure our working hours.  A century later, we’ve advanced that to barcodes, magnetic stripes, RFID cards or biometrics to track and police time, attendance and bathroom breaks. And it’s obviously the people at the bottom of the ladder who get the bulk of this attention.

Knowledge workers in the most enlightened of companies enjoy flexible working, flexible hours and results-only work environments. But those who pack boxes, patrol corridors, heave parcels up stairs, answer customer service calls and process insurance claims have their every move watched and controlled. In the future, their every move could be enhanced.

Worker-augmentation will be hugely profitable. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Getting worker a coffee just before they even realise they need it might sound innocent to some. Maybe you could even call it a fun office perk. But will we stop there? I don’t think so.

Where is the line between your favourite macchiato or cortado and a caffeine pill that’s just so much more efficient and easier to dispense? And where is the line between that pill and a taurine and caffeine combination that’s even more impactful?

What about the line between that and a company doctor’s prescription for Modafinil, the anti-sleeping or “wakefulness” drug-of-choice for students?  It is already widely prescribed to millions of exhausted workers suffering from Shift Worker Sleep Disorder, so that they can perform when the company demands without that inconvenient human trait of needing eight hours of sleep.

IBM’s patent filing isn’t alone in giving us a peek into a dystopian world where we embed further into a new class system – those of us whom technology further frees, and those of us whom it further enslaves.

Amazon wants AI to control the hands of workers directly.

Back in February, Amazon filed – and was awarded – a patent for “Ultrasonic bracelet and receiver for detecting position in 2d plane”. Translating this into real-world language, it’s a pair of wristbands worn by a warehouse worker that vibrate to get them to move their hands and arms towards the required goods in a faster, more reliable way.

Combine this with the genius invention from IBM and we could have exhausted warehouse workers, kept barely conscious through the delivery of legalised wakefulness drugs, with their hands moving automatically through the air to pick and pack boxes for our rapid, endless consumption.

Several journalists working undercover at Amazon warehouses have already revealed the worker conditions at the other end of the incredible Amazon Prime delivery service, the one that delights customers like you and me on a daily basis.

Workers pick 300 items an hour – that’s an average of 12 seconds per item – to allow Amazon to keep their promise of same day or next day delivery to customers. With the new wristbands, maybe that 12 seconds can become ten. Maybe that means even cheaper prices, but at what human cost?

Workers pick 300 items an hour – that’s an average of 12 seconds per item – to allow Amazon to keep their promise of same day or next day delivery to customers. With the new wristbands, maybe that 12 seconds can become ten. Maybe that means even cheaper prices, but at what human cost?

The corporations behind these patents naturally assure us not to worry, trotting out the usual PR damage-control line that “most patents never make it to real, usable technology” – telling us there’s nothing to really worry about, nothing to see here. But the intent is clear.

Humans are inefficient – they tire regularly and make mistakes. Robots and machines do not – they run constantly for weeks and months without breaks. But humans are dexterous, nimble and flexible, while robots, as yet, are not.

The inconvenient truth for corporations is that they are stuck with humans for large parts of their work for the foreseeable future. But if they can just augment those humans and make them more machine-like, until they can get the robots to replace them completely, that will be really profitable.

As you can tell, I’m increasingly bearish on this new AI-fuelled revolution for our world. Not because I don’t think it will bring incredible benefits and innovation that most of us can barely imagine, but because I believe those benefits will be selectively applied, and the gaps between the winners and losers in our society will become bigger.

I’m genuinely worried for our friends stuck at the wrong end of work – those unable to get themselves into a job where they, rather than the machine, not the machine. And I think that group of people is going to get bigger, not smaller, and it’s going to include a whole set of professions we’ve thought of as good, white-collar jobs too.

So, if you’re sitting in your office reading this, thinking the plight of the Amazon warehouse worker is far removed from your future, then I really hope you are right. Because to be honest, I’m not so sure.

About Glenn

Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership, technology and the future of work weekly at www.glennelliott.me. 

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Glenn's first book, the international HR bestseller, Build it : A Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is available on Kindle, iBooks and from any major bookseller worldwide.

2 Replies to “Your productivity will drop in the next 5 minutes. It’s time to take this drug.”

  1. James Amner says:

    Great article Glenn. Can’t wait for the epidemic of mental health issues that will arise from employees being artificial stimulated at the very point their bodies are telling them they’re too stressed. When will these organisations understand that you can’t improve productivity in the 21st century by creating the modern-day equivalent of galley slaves?

  2. Dan B says:

    Hi Glenn – totally agree. Very thought provoking article.

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