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CHIPS Articles: Interacting with Artificial Workers

Interacting with Artificial Workers
By Thomas Kidd - January-March 2019
At the beginning of the 21st century the digital assistant was virtually nonexistent. What we called personal digital assistants were in fact nothing more than handheld versions of an organizer with an address book and calendar. For the first decade of the 21st century, the closest most of us came to experiencing artificial intelligence in our daily lives was the early evolution of web search engines.

By 2010, smartphones began to include voice-based digital assistants able to respond to basic questions with reasonable results. As the second decade of the 21st century has progressed, these assistants left the phone and moved onto standalone appliances. In addition to answering questions, they are able to set calendar appointments, add products to a grocery list, and perform other simple tasks—like turning on lights and adjusting the thermostat—upon request.

The third decade of the 21st century promises the emergence of true digital assistants. They will not only do as commanded but they will also anticipate and take actions on their own. Mention your interest of a movie in general conversation, and your personal assistant will later recommend watching that movie when you have some time to kill. On a cold morning your assistant will prompt you to grab a sweater before you head out the door, and on the way home, remind you that your coworkers are meeting for dinner. These assistants will have migrated from simple on-demand devices and will have become truly interactive. By the end of the third decade of the 21st century, personal assistants will be ubiquitous. They will offer suggestions, remind us, and even warn us of important events in our lives.

This type of artificial intelligence will also enable artificial workers in the digital workplace. The chatbot, which just recently rose to popularity for customer support near the end of this decade, will be nearly indistinguishable from human support by the end of the next decade. These new workers will easily pass the Turing Test within their areas of expertise—we won’t be able to tell if we are interacting with a real or individual or artificial assistant.

Teleworking artificial apprentices will learn from their highly skilled human counterpart and eventually perform online tasks such as filing paperwork and formatting presentations. As artificial workers become more skilled, their human partners will be empowered to focus on more challenging aspects of their job that require intuition and creativity. By the end of the third decade, most of us could be working alongside an artificial worker.

However, introducing any workforce to a paradigm change is fraught with challenges. History has shown time and again that ignorance, prejudice, and fear combine to create resistance. And history will repeat itself when artificial workers begin to integrate into the human workforce unless we prepare and anticipate these challenges.

The Office of the DON Chief Information Officer (OCIO) Strategic Spectrum Team has engaged the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) to conduct a workforce study to determine the best organizational construct for a highly skilled, geographically dispersed but digitally connected electromagnetic spectrum workforce. At its core, this study isn’t unusual except for one task. In light of the potential for artificial workers in our workforce, the team has requested CNA to focus a lesser amount of their intellectual effort pondering the future challenges of integrating artificial workers into the electromagnetic spectrum workforce. The goal of this specific task is to identify and understand sources of potential resistance, and to make recommendations on how best to prepare the human workforce to accept and assimilate artificial workers in order to smooth such a transition as much as possible.

The days when interacting with artificial workers will soon be here. Will we be ready?

Tom Kidd is the director for DON Strategic Spectrum Policy in the Office of the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer.

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