Jim Young wants to know if it bothers me, what he just did.
The computer scientist tore off the head of the robot—the one with the big eyes and the innocent voice—that’s stood in his office.
Gone was petite Pepper, who earlier asked my name, who could tell I was smiling, who seemed excited to meet me: “I am the robot. You are the human. And this is the beginning of a beautiful story. I like humans.”
The University of Manitoba researcher interjects: “You said she was cute. I pulled her head off and you had that kind of look on your face like, ‘Why did you just do that!’ We’re smart enough to know better yet we still have the emotional system that’s there, which we’re having to contend with.”
Human meets humanoid—it’s an interaction getting a lot of attention, given the push for robots (or at least the artificial intelligence embedded within) to join the workforce.
Pepper breaks the ice by telling me about what she does, how she greets customers in Nissan showrooms and helps them choose coffee machines at Nescafé stores.
Young’s research findings suggest we’re not yet entirely sure how to work with these programmed machines that can be as inexpensive as $25,000 and might one day be cleaning your house. (Young mentions the office cleaner told him Pepper is “creepy” and watches her work.)
His latest study looks at the degree to which people, randomly stopped in UMSU University Centre, are willing to help a machine, based on how it talks. Do they find the tone aggressive? Is it sensitive to how busy they are? Is it talking slow enough that they can understand if English is not their first language?
Young shows a YouTube video of another experiment his team did where student volunteers took orders from a robot boss secretly voiced by a researcher in another room. The robot assigned the tedious task of renaming dozens and even hundreds of files.
Before it began, participants were told by a human they could stop whenever they wanted. But one after another, they succumbed to the machine’s insistence and carried on.
“It really shocked me how easily people went along with it,” Young says. “I think the biggest problem is that people underestimate how compelling these devices are. We think, ‘Oh, it’s just a robot. I’m not going to be fooled by that.’ It’s like marketing. You think, ‘Well, I’m too smart for that.’ Well, you’re not.” The social creatures we are, even a disc-shaped machine circling on a factory floor “with intentions and goals of its own, quickly comes to be seen by humans around it as a living thing,” Young found.
“You think, ‘Well, I’m too smart for that.’ Well, you’re not.”
So they don’t need to look like us. But when they do, it builds efficiency. Baxter, with thicker biceps than Pepper, is a contemporary version of the industrial robot found on car assembly lines. What’s new is its ability to move freely without a cage since it’s been modified to be safe enough to work side by side with humans. It was important Baxter have eyes on a screen attached to its mechanized arms, so it can look at you to provide a cue it’s about to pass you something.
Humans and machines alternate tasks since they excel at different things, explains Young. People are good at being flexible and doing custom work; computers are good at being precise.
The abstract of a recent study by Oxford and Yale Universities paints an exciting—or terrifying—picture of what’s coming: “Researchers predict AI will outperform humans in many activities in the next 10 years, such as translating languages (by 2024), writing high-school essays (by 2026), driving a truck (by 2027), working in retail (by 2031), writing a bestselling book (by 2049), and working as a surgeon (by 2053). Researchers believe there is a 50 per cent chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years…” Considering how much more data we collect nowadays—coupled with advances in machine learning, which relies on data entry so robots can learn how to learn—perhaps it’s no surprise.
Young is sounding the alarm bell that we need to stop underestimating the social impact. Exactly how we program their software, down to the tiny nuances, needs to be top of mind.
“You get computer scientists making these devices without thinking about the bigger picture, programming it to say certain things or act certain ways without really paying attention to whether it is manipulative or how it makes people feel, and then having these machines have these unintended consequences, like guilt, playing on people’s emotions—we might feel sorry for it,” says Young.
It’s an added layer of social complexity to the workplace—which is also, increasingly, revealing deeply embedded abuses of power. It’s hard to miss that the curvy Pepper looks part-Kardashian. The field of computer science still dramatically skews male.
“What is a dangerous thing, with robots, is that we have male-dominated teams making these decisions on what it says, what it looks like, how it acts towards people and maybe not noticing the biases built into it,” says Young.
And what were to happen if someone made a crude joke directed at Pepper?
“Because there’s no victim, there is suddenly no sense of consequence,” Young points out. “Does that make it look like this interaction is okay?”
Spaces that Speak
Early office design reveals an ideal setting for power plays—between top boss and lowly employee, which often meant man and woman.
Big insurance companies launched at the turn of the 20th century set the tone with their series of closed-door offices—stark and structured— where managers would have privacy to do claims and workers were relegated to open spaces known as “bullpens,” explains Lynn Chalmers, interior design associate professor at the U of M (see her workspace).
Men and women were often segregated, she says, and would even have their own entrances. Men were more often managers; women were the typists and clerical assistants.
“I think this separation between management and the worker was just a hierarchical way of viewing the world, which was very typical in the times when the workplace was first configured,” says Chalmers. The shift has been slow from believing the front of house—what the clients see—is the only space that matters, to recognizing it’s less about simply making a good impression and more about championing those responsible for production.
A corporation vibe is out. An employee vibe is in.
That means greater attention paid to the unique needs of the worker, informing accessible design, and removing physical and technological barriers. Also, to building an environment for collaborative thinkers. “It’s breaking down the hierarchies to create a much more democratic workplace,” says Chalmers.
Today’s reception area is more so a “social hub,” sending a message that: Here, employees are highly valued. In their design for a Winnipeg architecture firm (which gives staff every Friday afternoon off), Chalmers and her students suggested a mixed workspace greet clients at the front door. “There are certainly still work stations, and people do focused work at them, but the social areas look like a cross between a bar and coffee shop.”
Research shows creativity happens most in social settings, and companies are embracing a less-formal energy, says Chalmers. “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she says. “It’s those spontaneous conversations that are often the most important [ones] you have in your day and we haven’t provided those in the traditional workplace.”
The exchange of ideas is also behind the surge of co-working, where the self-employed share a professional space outside the home. Entrepreneurs are emerging from their parents’ basements to engage with groomed freelance writers, no longer working in their pyjamas. The multibillion-dollar WeWork offers shared, hipster-inspired office space in 59 cities worldwide—a land of mid-century furniture and decorative signage with messages like “respect the hustle.” The company’s site invites us to: Get the space, community, and services you need to make a life, not just a living. “It’s a very interesting model and it’s going to have a huge impact on office design because once the new generation has worked in a more social environment, they’re not going to want to work in an ordinary office,” says Chalmers. “The intention these days is to make the work more fun. Whether it’s succeeding, I’m not entirely sure.”
A New Boss
Chris Schmidt [BSc/16] is having a blast.
The 24-year-old CEO, who co-founded Winnipeg-based Geofilter Studio and grew it by an incredible 24,000 per cent in less than a year, says he can’t sleep Sunday night because he’s so excited for Monday morning. He turned a hunch of an idea into a multimillion-dollar tech company—one people want to work for.
“I come to work every day and just hang out with my friends, pretty much,” he says.
They were first in the world to offer custom geofilters for Snapchat— a digital frame to dress up your cellphone pic that pops up if you’re in range of a specific venue.
Saudi royalty wanted it for their wedding; Bruno Mars’ girlfriend wanted it for her birthday party. McDonalds, Amazon, Coca Cola— they’re all clients, too.
At its peak, the team was sending Snapchat a design every three or four seconds. Schmidt was hiring people on the spot during interviews and immediately sending them down the hall to join the other 85 employees.
He doesn’t differentiate between life and work.
“I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and I’ve been doing that for two and a half years,” Schmidt says, wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and Nikes. “I don’t drink coffee. I don’t do Red Bull. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. It’s 100 per cent natural, the energy that’s happening. And every day is super, super exciting.”
“It’s not about the money. My mom still makes my lunch.”
His employees—with an average age of 24—don’t want a micromanaging boss. If someone has a good idea, he says they have the green light.
Tucked away from where most of the staff and company bulldog (Ajax) roam, Schmidt nailed up two-by-fours to support a makeshift door. It blocks the view where two software developers are working on his next big idea. There’s a handwritten note warning others to keep out.
“The products we’ve spent the last month doing R & D on, that’s actually the crazy exciting stuff,” he says.
Already, the company has moved into augmented reality face filters for Facebook (which overlays moving props, like a Winnipeg Jets helmet) and was the first in the world to do so.
“I just like building companies. I love the process. The process is where the fun happens,” says Schmidt, who took science in university. He planned on pursuing medicine—his dad and both brothers are doctors—but instead applied his penchant for problem solving to serial entrepreneurship (he still runs a large tree-banding business launched in Grade 5).
“It’s not about the money,” says Schmidt, who drives a used car and lives at home. “My mom still makes my lunch.”
With 99 per cent of sales being international—and all online— there’s no need for fancy digs. From his dated boardroom, its ’80s faux-finish walls frozen in time, Schmidt says employees care less about the physical space as they do about having good benefits, being able to take time off no questions asked, and working in a positive atmosphere.
Keeping a stocked snack table doesn’t hurt. He buys sour soothers in bulk.
Google “cool office space” and guess what you’ll find.
An American mayor, in Kirkland, Wash., once compared having a Google building in her city to having Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, given it’s where “magical and mysterious things happen.”
Software engineer Shawn Silverman [BSc(EE)/99, MSc/05] worked at Googleplex—the three-million-square-foot headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.—for over two years. At the company that’s transformed how we query the world, it’s encouraged you be inquisitive, says Manitoba-raised Silverman.
“It had this concept of being ‘googly.’ It’s kind of a goofy word and all that but at the same time there was this culture of respect. This basic respect you had for each other. I was never afraid to ask a question,” says Silverman, who has also worked for tech heavyweights Twitter and Livescribe (a magical pen that transfers what you write directly to digital).
“The level of intelligence I got to work with—it felt like everyone was smarter than me, including the people who swept the floors. There was something to learn from everyone. It’s a really highly intelligent place.” To compete for the world’s top “collaborators and blue-sky thinkers,” as they put it, you need an edge.
Employee perks read like a resort pitch: Visit the meditation room, stroll the walking paths, curl up in a nap pod, take a dip in the lap pool before your massage, try the dance studio or volleyball court, order your lunch gratis from any one of the restaurants.
Go work outside on the grass while listening to live music, or hop on an eight-person green Google bike for your meeting.
Do you play the flute? Do you like to keep bees and make honey? There are social groups for that.
Laundry services are also available.
“I only did that once or twice,” shares Silverman, when he was out of clean socks. “It was an awkward thing. It just wasn’t that convenient to bring a bag of laundry.”
Workplace experts—including Chalmers—flag the dangers of our jobs becoming so comfortable, it’s exploitive. “We’re working toward a workplace that feels more like home, which has its problems,” she says. “It’s hard to say if people are working harder, but they’re sure working longer since we’ve dropped the notion that we can only work at our desks.”
Silverman was on the data centre team, made up of physicists and engineers—most in their 30s to 50s, with families.
“It’s important to feel at home, but the flip side is, if you have no family, maybe you’re right out of college, it’s easy to kind of have work just be your life. I don’t want to work 13 or 14 hours a day. I’ve been through that.”
Startups are notorious for taking advantage of this notion, he says, delivering more promise than pay for long hours. “There is still what I call a ‘startup culture’ at Google, except for the fact that they treat you well. I wanted to do good by them because they provided so much.”
He felt Twitter, despite its sea of open workspace, was less community-minded, but he did like the free steak tartare and croque-monsieur.
(At Google, they didn’t pair their cuisine with wine, but he could bring his own.)
If these posh workgrounds become more commonplace, are we creating a wave of entitled workers?
Silverman says, for the most part, people were in on the joke. The handle @twentitled ran parody quotes of Twitter employees, like “That meeting room was already booked for a blind coconut-water tasting” and “Ugh, I forgot my sunglasses in the ping pong room, now struggling on the roof deck.”
In the end, the lux living wasn’t enough to keep Silverman, who is now his own boss and free to pursue his passion for LED art, marrying tech and creativity. He talks excitedly about designing the interactive software within a glowing, two-storey Pac-Man showcased at the wild desert festival Burning Man that he’s been to eight times.
What he loved most about Google was the independence.
“I love being free to walk around whenever I want. I had that at Google. For me, it’s freedom.”
Take Me to your Millenial
Arran Caza doesn’t mince words.
“I’m trying to reduce the number of bad bosses in the world,” says the Asper School of Business associate professor.
He helps develop best leadership practices by researching workplace issues, including ageism. He says executives keep asking him, “What are we going to do with the millennials? They’re so different!” It’s a question expected to come up more often as we see a jump in the number of older workers, thanks to scientific advances allowing people to stay healthier longer, both physically and cognitively. This aging workforce will be matched by a surge in younger workers too, given high birthrates worldwide and immigration.
By 2030, we’ll see more workers over 60 than ever before and, at the same time, half of the workforce will be born in 1980 or later.
“We are going to have sharp 25- or 35-year-olds in charge of leading people who are 50, 60, or 70 and that’s been a relatively rare and uncomfortable circumstance in the past,” says Caza, 46. “I think we’re going to go through five to 15 years of growing pains around the age thing. We are going to have some 50- and 60-year-olds who didn’t move up the corporate ladder, being angry and resisting being bossed around—as they’ll see it—by these young upstarts, the people who are younger than them but in roles ahead of them. And likewise, some of those upstarts are going to be uncomfortable or unsure how to manage older workers.”
Noted differences in career philosophy fuel the clash. For earlier generations, working long hours has become a status symbol, Caza says. Whereas younger adults are willing to make less to get more free time. There are also stereotypes to overcome, including that millennials lack drive and commitment. But Caza points out they may be as loyal as anyone else and even more committed to their own ethical standards over corporations—they’re more likely to be the whistleblowers.
Whoever is boss needs to recognize his or her own bias, he says. Would you attribute the stumbling of a 65-year-old delivering a presentation to aging? Or a 25-year-old—to lack of preparation?
“The research evidence suggests that people expect more proof of expertise from younger workers,” says Caza. “We tend to have the most confidence in the 40-60 range.”
(It was only in the last decade that age-discrimination laws extended to protect all Canadians beyond 60; no longer can anyone be laid off or denied a promotion because of age.)
The key to bridging generations is focusing on similarities.
“A 65-year-old may find themselves thinking about sustainability and saving the environment, in terms of legacy, and the 25-year-old has grown up with the need to save the planet. If they can get past thinking, ‘You’re that generation, I’m this generation,’ they may find, as individuals, they both want to reduce their carbon footprint. They may have more in common than they think,” he says.
Caza also studies authenticity in the workplace and discovered how it can be a “riskier play” for women. His findings show how men are often rewarded for being real; and women, the opposite. If a man talks about his spouse and kids, he’s seen as caring and warm. If a woman does the same, it is more likely to be inferred she lets family responsibilities get in the way.
“There is a real possibility some will perceive her as not focused enough on business. ‘She worries too much about the kids; maybe we shouldn’t promote her.’”
This gender bias could greet master’s student Simrit Deol [BPE/15], who is building a career in kinesiology and recreation management aimed at empowering at-risk girls through sport.
She seeks “a free-thinking work environment.”
“I’m very afraid of the 9 to 5. It would terrify me to clock in and clock out,” says Deol. “I don’t do well with office-y things.”
The type of boss she wants to work for—and one day, be—is someone who knows she doesn’t have all the answers and gives every employee equal voice, removing the ladder. The organizational chart would flow laterally, versus up and down.
“But at the same time, by eliminating a hierarchy, you might also eliminate people striving to be the best that they possibly can… Will people do that if there is no incentive? I feel like if you work for something you care about, hopefully that is incentive enough.”
Finding meaning and purpose in our day-to-day sounds very human, less humanoid.
“Work ought to be joyous.”
Chalmers sums it up like this: “Work ought to be joyous.” WeWork sounds similar: We can all look forward to Monday if we find real meaning in what we do.
And there may be more enriching roles to choose from as artificial intelligence takes over the more tedious task work, points out Silverman, who marvels at the AI advances made by the tech leaders who’ve employed him. But we’ll need to survive the job-loss repercussions that could stretch a generation or two.
“You train people in different things,” he says, “maybe how to work with AI, maybe how to repair robots, how to do things we hadn’t thought of before. It basically frees us from mundane things. But at the same time, any massive change like that does cause upheaval and there will be a lot of people hurt by that. Hell, maybe we can use AI to help figure that out.”
Back in Young’s office, Pepper the robot offers a few last words for me, before the researcher shuts her down.
“I’ve done my best to please you,” she says. “Make sure you write a good article on Pepper.”
Young erupts with laughter.
“How did she know that?” I ask.