Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

Artificial Intelligence and Teamwork

What does it mean for teams?

Posted Mar 20, 2019

After slashing tires on the auto, the suspect, a white man in his 20’s, disappeared. Rocks being thrown at vans. A woman heard screaming at vehicles and passengers assaulted with a PVC pipe. What can explain this wave of vandalism directed at automobiles in Arizona? The "victim" cars all had something in common: They were driverless cars and vans were operated by Waymo, the car company spun out of Google.

It gets better (or, worse): Such violence directed towards machines do not represent isolated incidents but have been occurring since 2017, when testing of vans by Waymo commenced near Phoenix. Around two dozen such incidents in the area represent at least some of the public’s attitudes towards driverless technology, spurred, according to public officials hearing such complaints, about concerns of job loss and safety.

Is this new "techno-vandalism" story anything more than what has gone on for centuries as machines get relentlessly more sophisticated and able to do what was formerly human labor? Are the vandals in Arizona 21st century versions of the Luddites who smashed textile machinery in England as a protest to changes in their working conditions some 200 years ago? There is no doubt that fears and concerns over the way things work have always been with us. As we write this, the Boeing 737 Max8 airplane is being grounded across the world. While we don’t know for sure the cause of two recent accidents involving this aircraft, there are concerns about an automated system that pilots may have trouble overriding.

On the upside, there is growing evidence that people can benefit from AI. For examples, people could negotiate with machines in a more efficient way. In professional sports, some baseball players believe that robots should call balls and strikes, and in the banking industry, employees are being introduced to the virtual assistant Erica. Even the United States Marines are emphasizing digital warfare.

While developments in artificial intelligence (AI) may make it seem that machines are relentlessly taking over tasks and jobs once done by individuals, work that needs to be done by groups of people is perhaps harder to replace. That means that working well in a team, and understanding team processes, can be one of the most critical skills in the workplace and may even make the difference between keeping your job or not. Indeed, academics have observed, and most of us have sensed, that data and technology advance faster than do organizational structures and teamwork.

What do we know about the role of teamwork in technological changes such as when AI is introduced into the workplace? In a study of dozens of occupations, McKinsey Global Institute concluded that jobs with a high degree of teamwork and management were less vulnerable to computerization and automation. So, teamwork, negotiations, and management skills will be even more critical when robots inevitably become our colleagues in the workplace.

Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova