Your new manager will be an algorithm

It sounds like a line from a science fiction novel, but many of us are already managed by algorithms, at least for part of our days. In the future, most of us will be managed by algorithms and the vast majority of us will collaborate daily with intelligent technologies including robots, autonomous machines and algorithms.

Algorithms for task management

Many workers at UPS are already managed by algorithms. It is an algorithm that tells the humans the optimal way to pack the back of the delivery truck with packages. The algorithm essentially plays a game of "temporal Tetris" with the parcels and packs them to optimize for space and for the planned delivery route--packages that are delivered first are towards the front, packages for the end of the route are placed at the back.


Load optimization software has been used for many years to ensure the optimal space usage and balance in shipping containers, trucks, pallets, and air freight. Logistics companies use software like Logen Solutions' CubeMaster and Cube-IQ from MagicLogic. Similar algorithms will help us all in the future.

Algorithms also tell UPS and Fedex drivers the best route to take to minimize the length of delivery circuit and reduce fuel consumption. They go way beyond typical route-planning and optimize the route to reduce the total number of left-hand turns needed (in countries that drive on the right-hand side of the road) to make it easier for the drivers and to save time.

Algorithm managing humans in retail

Algorithms also help to manage people in retail stores. One of the key things a store manager does is ensure that the store is "in compliance". What that means is that all the things are on the shelves or racks where they are supposed to be. Shoppers are notorious for picking up things (a fluffy grey sweater, a nice piece of beef, or a carton of orange juice) and then changing their minds a few minutes later. Rather than take the item back where they got it, they just dump it off wherever they are. So meat ends up in the cheese section, and fluffy grey sweaters end up with the rose-print swimsuits. People working in stores are forever roaming the floor looking for items that aren't where they are supposed to be and returning them to their proper location. Because customers buy more when the shop looks nice and tidy.

Stores that have invested in RFID (radio frequency identity) technology and electronically tagged all their inventory can now know where every item in their store is located. RFID sensors in the ceiling can "see" the location of every item. Algorithms quickly learn where items are supposed to be and spot when items are left where they shouldn't be. This information is then passed to task management software platforms that mobilize a human and give them a list of items they need to relocate. That list might be communicated via an app on a phone, on a tablet, or on a wearable device, either on the wrist or in the ear.

Detecting and acting upon business events

It's all about detecting business events and then taking appropriate action. In the retail case, the business event was non-compliance of a piece of inventory. The action was telling a human to move the item back to where it should be. Simple. But there may be much more complex business events that you might want to look out for. And the action you might take may be something done by a human being, by a machine (e.g. a robot), or by another algorithm.

The more sophisticated your ability to sense what is happening in the real world, the more information algorithms have to enable them understand what is happening in a business. If algorithms can understand the world better they can be used to spot complex business events that need to be acted upon, and then trigger an appropriate business process to respond to that event. Customers can be better served. Issues can be speedily resolved. And profits can be boosted.

Cameras can be excellent sensors, especially once machine vision technology is added into the mix. Cameras built in to shelves on a grocery store can look across the aisle and look out for compliance issues, understand how long shoppers dwell as they review products/advertising, and a lot more. Cameras at train stations can spot suspicious, unattended packages left on crowded concourses. 

Cameras that can also sense depth make even better sensors. If you could mount depth-sensing cameras above tables in a restaurant you could look for important business events like, "drink levels on table two are getting low", or "customer raised hand for over two seconds on table seven", likely indicating they are interested in having a server swing by. In both cases, a message could be passed to the appropriate member of the wait staff letting them know they should probably stop by those two tables soon if they want to optimize their tips.

Wifi hotpots in stores can be used to sniff the MAC address of every wifi-enabled smartphone that walks into the store. If the wifi system spots the MAC address for the phone of a known big spender, store associates can be alerted to look out for the customer, be prompted with their name, and then give them the appropriate level of sucking up.

As the cost of sensing plummets, expect more and more businesses to embrace the Internet of Things as a way to sense important business events and then act upon them using the humans in the system. Ultimately businesses will use a combination of ways to act upon business events, using a team of humans, autonomous machines (robots), and algorithms working side-by-side to respond to sensed business events.

We will all be managed and coached by algorithms

None of us will escape this shift towards being managed by algorithms. Sophisticated analytics software will not only help us predict what might happen next, but also give guidance on what we should do. Oncologists are already getting an automated "second opinion" from expert systems built on IBM's Watson technology. Lawyers will work alongside algorithmic paralegals. Marketers already use predictive and prescriptive analytics to tell them who to target with their marketing campaigns and how to optimize response rates.

For many of us the way algorithms will manage most of us will be through our personal assistants. Siri, Google Now, and Cortana are toys today compared to where personal assistant technology will be in the next decade. As each of us gain a digital personal assistant (DPA) able to manage our calendars, advise us on our personal finances, book our travel, remind us to order flowers for mother's day, and much more, we will find ourselves under the spell of algorithms. As these personal assistants become proactive rather than reactive, we will find that our lives slowly become managed by algorithms, helping us to optimize the path of our lives in whatever ways we choose. They will help us be more productive, prompt us to do things that aid personal growth (based on our expressed ambitions) and even start to supplement our memories.

Our DPAs will feel both like helpers and also like coaches. "Steve, don't forget to pick up the dry cleaning". "Steve, you need to respond to your new client's email by 1pm today". "Steve, would you like me to order some flowers for your parents' anniversary today? You know they like peonies."

DPAs will also help to supplement our memories, particularly when we run into people we haven't seen in a while: "Steve, this is Tony, you met him and his wife Ann at a party last summer. Be nice, he has a 74% chance of being a helpful business connection". All whispered privately into the ear at the appropriate moment.

Our DPAs will also talk to our health-sensing network and our wearables to understand our mood and offer us emotional support: "Steve, I know you're stressed about this meeting, but just focus on the goal and you'll do great." Or "Steve, you seem tired, the nearest Starbucks is on the right two blocks up. Let's pull over. I've pre-ordered you a cup of earl grey tea with 2%."

Merging with technology

We have been on a path towards starting to merge with our technology for some time. Before mobile phones, most people knew all the phone numbers for all their closest friends. Now we have out-sourced that job to our phones. We also outsource our sense of direction to Google Maps and have embraced the communications capabilities of phones as a way to augmented our natural communication capabilities. I don't think it's an accident that the leading mobile OS is called "Android". When we need to communicate with somebody that's nearby we talk and move our hands. When we need to talk to somebody that's remote, we use our phones. It's almost like they are a new "organ" for remote communcation.

As algorithms and robots become more and more useful to us, and we deploy them widely throughout both our work and personal lives, we will outsource more and more to technology. We will partner with technology to get things done, to communicate with others, to monitor our wellness, to learn and grow. And we will become more and more reliant upon them.

Imagine two people talking to each other twenty years from now. Each person is getting advice whispered into their ears from their DPAs, advising them what to say next to help them overcome any social anxiety they might have and to get whatever result they are seeking. It could be one person trying to get that big order from the other that will make them a hero back at the office. It could be a person trying to secure a first date. Or perhaps the two people are just trying to make good conversation, but getting help to go beyond small talk. In this scenario we might examine the old philosophical question, "Who am I?", in a totally new way. Who is really calling the shots? How much of who I am is now "me", and how much is the augmentation I have chosen to build around me?

Next time we will dive into what I call "The new diversity". As algorithms and robots become a vital part of our work environment, inclusion no longer is just about building high-functioning teams by embracing diversity amongst humans. The most effective work teams of the future will combine humans and machines (both robots and algorithms) to deliver the best business results. But that's a subject for next week.

For now, what do you think about the idea of being managed by an algorithm? Are you already managed, in part, by an algorithm? If you examine your current job how could you see it made easier with a software assistant of some kind? And how does that make you feel?