I think our approach and response to sexual harassment and abuse is all wrong. The efforts tend to be focused on punishment rather than training and early mitigation, and we all know those in power can generally dodge most intermediate punishment steps. The result of this type of practice at Fox News, for example, was the loss of a number of top men and women, those who caused the problem and those who were victims of it. I think, with the proper application of artificial intelligence (AI), we could put in place processes that would massively reduce this kind of behavior, largely by catching it early and aggressively discouraging it. I also think this method could be used for virtually all kinds of abuse, from bullying to abusive discrimination.
Let’s discuss the application I think we need for IBM’s Watson on any smartphone.
Articulating the Problem
IBM’s recent epiphany is that AI should be used to enhance, not replace, people. The focus of most efforts is on making the employee more productive and the executive far more able to make the right decisions in a timely manner. This is all very good, but as we have seen, people’s personal decisions and how they interact with others can often have a bigger impact on the organization they work in than their business decisions. For instance, it doesn’t do any good to have an executive who makes great decisions in business but also sexually harasses subordinates. The outcome for the executive and the firm will still end badly.
As I see it, the problem with the current AI focus is that we are thinking too much about work content and not enough about work behavior. Work behavior can often have a far bigger effect on the firm than work product. For instance, the comptroller at Fox appears to have been competent, but her alleged treatment of minorities who reported to her has resulted in a massive amount of bad press for the firm and a number of high-profile lawsuits, apparently easily overcoming any benefit from her work product.
The Smartphone Fix
One of the security problems with smartphones is that they can relatively easily be turned into devices that can spy on us. Their cameras and microphones, through malware, can be turned on and whatever we hear, and some of what we see, conveyed to hostile actors. What if we took this disadvantage and turned it into an asset, feeding a deep learning AI like Watson this information in a secure fashion and having Watson provide regular feedback on what it heard. What if this were in an application positioned to be a career enhancer, but also designed to identify abusive, racist, sexist and discriminatory practices? It would ping at the time it heard something inappropriate as a warning and send a report at the end of the day pointing out potential mistakes and making suggestions as to what could have been done better. Positioning would be to allow the user to advance more quickly in their chosen field. As part of this process, a legitimate focus would be to also focus on removing the targeted abusive behavior.
Now, I can immediately see a problem, because few companies are going to want their executives, top employees, and critical staff to have their conversations shipped off to a cloud service for analysis. I can also imagine a number of legal departments where attorneys, upon hearing about a service like this, might consider jumping out windows. Though, I should point out that, if an executive were falsely accused of abuse or harassment, much like with a police body camera, the data captured could go a long way to proving no wrongdoing was committed.
What if, alternatively, you started with kids, and added the capability of identifying bullies and predators?
I was abused as a child and nearly committed suicide when I was very young. I’m also one of the few males who was threatened with rape by a woman. At one point, that fear literally scared me mute. Since the abuse partially came from parents, I didn’t have much of a safety net, and I’m scarred and lucky to be around. For a time, this also made me abusive. Fortunately, I grew out of that, but I might not have. These behaviors, when learned young, often don’t go away. I was luckier than most, but I naturally see the abuse of children as a serious part of the abuse cycle.
What if this theoretical tool were applied to children as a protection against abuse and to mitigate their becoming abusive? It could also mitigate their inability at a young age to think through consequences and help assure that they actually become an adult. Catching the behavior early, either by the child or against the child, could help build that child into a far more responsible adult. Then, not only would they be more willing to use a tool like a Watson smartphone service to help them in their careers, they’d also need it less to help them with their behavior because they’d have fewer bad habits to unlearn.
Wrapping Up: Being Proactive with Harassment, Abusive Behavior
Fox News just fired a highly valuable personality because the firm didn’t address a long-term harassment problem successfully. Before the dust fully settles, I expect a lot of people who didn’t deserve to lose their jobs will anyway, with the typical terminations that occur when a program is cancelled. Abuse is a serious problem but, I believe, if the behavior is caught soon enough, it doesn’t have to destroy lives or careers. I think the right combination of smartphone capability, Watson and data security all tied up into an AI mentoring app on a smartphone could go a long way toward assuring our kids are not harmed by abuse, or will become abusers.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+