SAN FRANCISCO — What if part of your job became teaching a computer everything you know about doing someone’s job — perhaps your own?
Before the machines become smart enough to replace humans, as some people fear, the machines need teachers. Now, some companies are taking the first steps, deploying artificial intelligence in the workplace and asking their employees to train the A.I. to be more human.
We spoke with five people — a travel agent, a robotics expert, an engineer, a customer-service representative and a scriptwriter, of sorts — who have been put in this remarkable position. More than most, they understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of artificial intelligence and how the technology is changing the nature of work.
Here are their stories.
Rachel Neasham, travel agent
Ms. Neasham, one of 20 (human) agents at the Boston-based travel booking app Lola, knew that the company’s artificial intelligence computer system — its name is Harrison — would eventually take over parts of her job. Still, there was soul-searching when it was decided that Harrison would actually start recommending and booking hotels.
At an employee meeting late last year, the agents debated what it meant to be human, and what a human travel agent could do that a machine couldn’t. While Harrison could comb through dozens of hotel options in a blink, it couldn’t match the expertise of, for example, a human agent with years of experience booking family vacations to Disney World. The human can be more nimble — knowing, for instance, to advise a family that hopes to score an unobstructed photo with the children in front of the Cinderella Castle that they should book a breakfast reservation inside the park, before the gates open.
Ms. Neasham, 30, saw it as a race: Can human agents find new ways to be valuable as quickly as the A.I. improves at handling parts of their job? “It made me feel competitive, that I need to keep up and stay ahead of the A.I.,” Ms. Neasham said. On the other hand, she said, using Harrison to do some things “frees me up to do something creative.”
Ms. Neasham is no ordinary travel agent. When she left the Army after serving as a captain in Iraq and Afghanistan, she wanted to work at a start-up. She joined Lola as one of its first travel agents. Knowing that part of her job was to be a role model, basically, for Harrison, she felt a responsibility for Harrison to become a useful tool.
Founded in 2015 by Paul English, who also started the travel-search site Kayak, Lola was conceived as part automated chat service and part recommendation engine. Underlying it all was a type of artificial intelligence technology called machine learning.
Lola was set up so that agents like Ms. Neasham didn’t interact with the A.I. much, but it was watching and learning from every customer interaction. Over time, Lola discovered that Harrison wasn’t quite ready to take over communication with customers, but it had a knack for making lightning-fast hotel recommendations.
At first, Harrison would recommend hotels based on obvious customer preferences, like brands associated with loyalty programs. But then it started to find preferences that even the customers didn’t realize that they had. Some people, for example, preferred a hotel on the corner of a street versus midblock.
And in a coming software change, Lola will ask lifestyle questions like “Do you use Snapchat?” to glean clues about hotel preferences. Snapchat users tend to be younger and may prefer modern but inexpensive hotels over more established brands like the Ritz-Carlton.
While Harrison may make the reservations, the human agents support customers during the trip. Once the room is booked, the humans, for example, can call the hotel to try to get room upgrades or recommend how to get the most out of a vacation.
“That’s something A.I. can’t do,” Ms. Neasham said.
Diane Kim, interaction designer
Ms. Kim is adamant: Her assistant doesn’t use slang or emoji.
Her assistant, Andrew Ingram, also avoids small talk and doesn’t waste time on topics beside scheduling her meetings, she said.
Ms. Kim isn’t being tyrannical. She just knows her assistant better than most bosses, because she programmed him.
Ms. Kim, 22, works as an A.I. interaction designer at x.ai, a New York-based start-up offering an artificial intelligence assistant to help people schedule meetings. X.ai pitches clients on the idea that, through A.I., they get the benefits of a human assistant — saving the time and hassle of scheduling a meeting — at a fraction of the price.
It’s Ms. Kim’s job to craft responses for the company’s assistants, who are named Andrew and Amy Ingram, or A.I. for short, that feel natural enough that swapping emails with these computer systems feels no different than emailing with a human assistant.
Ms. Kim’s job — part playwright, part programmer and part linguist — didn’t exist before Alexa, Siri and other A.I. assistants. The job is like a translator of sorts. It is to help humans access the A.I.’s superhuman capabilities like 24/7 availability and infallible memory without getting tripped up by robotic or awkward language.
Even in the narrow parameters of scheduling meetings, it takes a lot of machine learning to break down emails for a computer. For example, setting a meeting for “Wednesday” is different than setting a meeting for “a Wednesday,” as in any Wednesday. X.ai breaks down emails to its component parts to understand intent.
The automated response is where Ms. Kim takes over. Her job is to imagine how…
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