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BRAINIAC

Robots would make terrible bosses, until you think about your actual boss

How would you feel about taking orders from this guy?
Wikimedia Commons
How would you feel about taking orders from this guy?

In pop culture, the robot apocalypse looks like a wasteland in which grimy, starving bands of humans do battle with all-seeing metal menaces that rule the skies. In practice, the robot takeover may be less violent and more soul-crushing: Instead of hunting us down, robots may simply start telling us what to do.

A recent article out of the Wharton School of Business detailed all the ways that robots—or really, computer algorithms—are taking over some kinds of management responsibilities. These include setting employee schedules, screening resumes, and monitoring workplace interactions to find lurking inefficiencies.

It might sound absurd, but as Wharton professor Shawndra Hill notes, there are plenty of examples of robots doing well at tasks we previously thought only humans could perform. Driving is one example—it now seems like a foregone conclusion that automated cars will make better decisions behind the wheel than we do. Evaluating baseball prospects is (to some degree) another.

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When you think about it, a lot of the tasks bosses actually perform are fairly rote: monitoring company performance, tracking employee productivity, nudging people when they need to get more done. But even if robots can do a reasonable impression of a human boss, maybe employees don’t want to take directions from a computer? Not so fast: A recent MIT study cited in the Wharton article found that in some circumstances workers actually prefer being bossed by a computer, maybe because it takes some of the sting out of being told what to do.

Robots have been taking over low-level jobs for years, so maybe it’s fitting that they may now be coming for the managers who introduced them into the workplace. And if robots do start taking over middle-management positions, the displaced taskmasters may have only themselves to blame. After all, robots aren’t about to replace our siblings, because we have deep emotional ties to our siblings. But our bosses? When the robots come knocking, it may be disgruntled employees who open the door to let them in.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.