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AI is making us less productive

OPenAI CEO Sam Altman and Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott at a Microsoft event in Seattle last month. Credit: Getty

June 21, 2024 - 7:30pm

Earlier this month, Wells Fargo fired several employees for pretending to work. According to the bank, the staff had been using “mouse jigglers” to simulate activity. This software prevents a computer from falling into idle mode, and so fools a supervisor into believing that the employee is busy, when they are not.

“Wells Fargo holds employees to the highest standards and does not tolerate unethical behaviour,” the bank explained.

“Use them wisely,” advises one “unethical” advocate — the Instagrammer “antiworkgirlboss” — of using the jigglers. She’s one of a number of influencers promoting workplace idleness as a lifestyle choice. One of her mantras is “Working hard is a choice we get to decide for ourselves”.  Simulation tools such as jigglers are “part of her digital footprint”, she says. And now she has a powerful friend, in the shape of one of the richest companies on the planet.

Last month Microsoft began to market its generative artificial intelligence Copilot software to employees under the implicit pretext that they could use it to deceive their boss. The ad suggests it can help you attend three meetings at once and turn 150 pages into a five minute presentation. Yet claiming to be in three meetings at once is no different to the “unethical behaviour” which got the mouse jigglers fired at Wells Fargo: the employee is deceiving their boss by pretending to be busier than they actually are.

The subject of workplace idleness remains largely untouched by academics. The Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen, who examined the phenomenon and coined the phrase “empty labour” in his eponymous 2014 book, describes how he was shunned by his colleagues for investigating the subject. They preferred a rigidly Marxist explanation of an oppressor (the employer) and an oppressed (the employee).

Yet as David Bolchover — who disappeared for two years as a senior manager in the insurance industry — argues, recounting the experience in his book The Living Dead, idleness is a luxury really only available to middle-class management. Marx would have recognised it instantly as a bourgeois sinecure. The Right is equally wary to address the subject, for widespread idleness dents the notion of an inherently efficient private sector, and also suggests that supposedly competitive marketplaces are less competitive than participating firms would have us believe.

Much of the expansion has come from regulatory compliance – almost as many employees work in human resources as work in agriculture – and maintaining swollen technology teams.

Into this complex sociological picture comes generative AI, which creates pastiches very impressively, performing the role of a supercharged mouse jiggler. It’s a very modern prop for the idle and the dishonest employee. Early in 2023, the cartoonist Tom Fishburne captured the potential of AI for make-work in a simple cartoon. In one panel, an employee boasts to a colleague: “AI turns this single bullet point into a long email I can pretend I wrote.” In the second, another employee says: “AI makes a single bullet point out of this long email I can pretend I read.” The joke rests on the fact that most internal corporate communication is completely superfluous, so automating it is an expensive way of making an already-inefficient organisation even less productive. And it doesn’t come cheap, either. Microsoft charges £24.70 monthly per user for its Copilot AI software. This is on top of the £18.10-per-month Microsoft 365 Business Premium package. At almost £300 per year for each user, one has to wonder if the benefits really outweigh the cost.

We’ve been promised a productivity miracle from AI, but workplace idleness is a factor that does not feature in such Panglossian forecasts. For example, the IMF continues to fret about widespread workforce instability and inequalities from AI. Yet the productivity gains from introducing a brilliant but unreliable mimic into the workplace may not merely be overstated — they may never materialise at all. Not if the jigglers get there first.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

One of the problems we’re running into, as automation, computerization, and mechanization advance, is what to do with all these damn people. I mean, you gotta do something with them. People running around loose with lots of spare time on their hands cause mischief to keep themselves occupied. Now, some of that mischief is private, interpersonal drama that really only matters to the actors involved, but much of it is public: witness how many entirely substanceless brouhahas have blown up over the past twenty years and consumed enormous amounts of time and energy on the part of just about everybody. So something has to keep people busy, and unfortunately that’s probably going to be make-work. Anyone who’s been job-hunting recently will note how much of the process is computerized and automated these days, which you would think would reduce the number of staffers in most companies’ human resources departments. And yet precisely the opposite seems to be happening. What is DEI, after all, but a make-work scheme designed to provide jobs to people who can do nothing useful? And, thanks to computers, increasingly more and more people can do nothing useful, because it’s usually cheaper to have a machine do it.
So on the one hand, machines are making us more efficient, because they assume more and more of the workload. On the other hand, machines are making us less efficient, by clogging up the workforce with unnecessary and meddling bureaucrats.

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago

Bullseye

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

Y’ll need a New Stonehenge! Or two or three.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

But the old one’s still under warranty!

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago

—So something has to keep people busy
Nothing to worry about. Earlier today, I read in “Politico” an article about climate activists and the article in all seriousness discussed the activity of “professional campaigners”. (Think Greta et al.)
What a life of self-fulfillment to be enjoyed by young – and not so yong – people! Exciting careers and being useful to society (JSO naturally comes to mind). And all this apparently well paid!
Most importantly, no competition from AI in that field.
Problem solved.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

This looks very much like the period just before a major readjustment. That’s a euphemism for mass redundancy. The point being that if AI tools can mimic employee activity, they can also provide a useful source of info to business owners as to how much real work is getting done, at which point the aforementioned owners can fire loads of expensive lazy paper pushers ahem, “streamline their operations”.

What’s really interesting about the above, though, is that even the people who don’t use these AI tricks to lessen their own workload, many of them are quite likely superfluous. If it is a common practice for a one-line piece of information to be padded out to a three paragraph email, then that implies strongly that the person doing that job is wasting both his own time and that of his colleagues. If there is now an AI tool that can accurately extract and condense information that efficiently, then it’s only a matter of time before business owners use the same tool to evaluate the “real” amount of work that is being put out by each employee. We’ve been hearing for years about the public sector’s infinite capacity for creating useless jobs simply in order to expand budgets and headcounts, and that’s a thorny political issue, but in the world of commerce, such a situation nothing more than a potential cost saving ripe for the picking.

Things might be about to get messy.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
29 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

About time. No sympathy here for these lazy, stupid, entitled turds. I imagine they make up a large percentage of the vile and cowardly social media mobs.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

The situation makes me remember Parkinson’s law: the number of workers within public administration, bureaucracy or officialdom tends to grow, regardless of the amount of work to be done. This was attributed mainly to two factors: that officials want subordinates, not rivals, and that officials make work for each other.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

It’s true of private enterprises too, only competition usually limits the excesses.

Public bureaucrats also write regulations for the private sector. It is through regulation that Parkinson’s law creates “real” extra work in the private sector.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Hmm, mainly i just want to say no bank exists as a free market enterprise. They have a monopoly on money creation and are bailed out by central banks as “neccessary”. Regards AI, should add productivity alright but we have been adding productivity and impoverishing the masses ( in the developed) world anyway. Sure have a cheap tv ( and a million shows ) but dont go looking for a house….who defines productivity anyway ?

John Riordan
John Riordan
29 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Agreed. The banking sector is corporatist, not free market, and has been substantially so since the 2008 financial crisis.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
29 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Everything is corporatism, not just banks, there are oligopolies in almost everything, think Amazon, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, the oil majors, the mining majors, insurance companies, telecommunications giants, big media, big auto companies, etc etc. In many ways banking is more competitive, there are 5 or 6 major banks but plenty of smaller ones.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

The joke rests on the fact that most internal corporate communication is completely superfluous

Which is far closer to the actual issue. People, and organisations are simply inefficient, with that inefficiency hiding in plain sight.

Anybody who has worked in any large organisation will have noticed that some people work very hard, some are very idle, and some are just very inefficient. Some people seem to see work as mainly a paid extension of their social life. And as the author says, this is largely a middle class perk.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
29 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I wonder how long the middle class perks will last if there is a recession and slowing economy, this is when organizations slash and burn because they are forced to. There could be huge surprises for the slackers out there, with AI and technology improvements many people will be at risk. Especially if they have an unproductive job that doesn’t generate revenue for the company.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
1 month ago

Just looking at the dudes in the photo sends chills down my spine. AI is nothing new and every platform that I have encountered starts OK but then ends up not as good as human interaction and dumbs down the process. Weather forecasting is one example and it sucks. We have computers, satellites, weather stations, and flying aircraft that report winds and temps but the system is not as good as having human input, especially from experienced meteorologists. Spell check and grammar is another, it seems like adjectives are no longer viable in communication. My only hope is that it will put thousands of overpaid techies/Google/Facebook minions out of work. I don’t need to get my info one millisecond faster, or have 5 cameras on my phone, or turn into inquiry on a phone or computer into advertising opportunities. Brave New World.