Meet your new digital colleague

February 04, 2019

Chatbot in an office

Story by Rob Rombouts

Siri, Alexa and Cortana. Artificial Intelligence is making its way into our homes and smartphones, and is increasingly finding its place in the workforce.

A group of researchers from Western’s Department of Psychology has partnered with an AI start-up company to study how companies can most effectively integrate AI into their operations. The project is funded by Mitacs.

“For many workers, there may be a fear of replacement, but there is also value in augmenting the skills of existing employees,” Alex Benson, Assistant Professor, said. “Many companies are looking for ways to leverage AI technology in the workplace for the betterment of workers.”

John Meyer, Professor, and Julia McMenamin, a PhD student in the department, make up the rest of the research team.

McMenamin has been working with Kiite, an AI start-up company, to study the implementation of an AI powered intelligent sales coach, and better understand how human workers interact and react to the AI.

In the testing phase, the Kiite bot has been introduced in the offices of a number of companies. Workers are encouraged to ask the chat-bot questions about the company, procedures, and other information. Kiite has developed the bot to assist companies with the on-boarding process of new employees and increasing employees’ access to information to help them perform better in their organizational role.

In the study, McMenamin has interviewed workers from participating companies to explore their baseline attitudes of AI in the workplace, as well as how they would like to use a chat-bot.

“We are trying to understand why people are liable to trust or dis-trust an AI co-worker,” McMenamin said, including considering what kind of questions humans would approach a human co-worker, and which they would ask an AI co-worker.

McMenamin plans to keep interviewing users and will provide feedback to the product developers, to assist with the design of the Kiite bot.

“Users tend to support the idea that AI can take on tedious tasks and workers can focus on high-level tasks they enjoy,” said McMenamin. “We want to know how companies can implement AI so employees feel more empowered. It’s important to understand the range of potential reactions.”

“There is a real need to understand the ways in which working alongside AI technology may support or thwart employees in their day-to-day job functions,” said Benson.

“On average, AI is viewed as more objective and consistent in its decision making. Interestingly, this means that people tend to place more trust in AI to do specific tasks than humans. However, people lose trust in AI quicker if there are errors. To err is human, so we are more accepting of mistakes from people.”

The partnership with Kiite has been a chance to be part of an emerging field of study. “To study something as it is being developed and implemented is rare,” said Benson.

For McMenamin, the project has been an opportunity for hands-on research and knowledge translation. “One of the most difficult things in our area of research is getting access to participants in the workplace,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to talk to people about their experiences as they happen.”

The team expects to complete the study and analysis of data in summer 2019.