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Start the e-Bulldozers

Even with computers crawling out of every closet, we don’t seem to be working fewer hours at the office or achieving more. Where aree the “electronic bulldozers” that will free us from routine office toil?

There was a time when people moved earth with shovels using their muscles. Then came bulldozers, and the workers threw away their shovels because they could move more earth, faster and more accurately, with small movements of their fingers.

Are we doing as well in the Information Revolution?

There was a time when people labored with their minds and eyes, their information-world muscles, on a multitude of office tasks. Then came the computers and…cut to your favorite e-mail or Web-browsing session: You squint your eyes and stretch your brain, pondering what that long header or that distant Web site really says. You then click your mouse, bringing up another page and back you go to squinting and stretching, repeating the process sometimes for hours. You are in effect “shoveling” with your eyes and brain, but you are not aware of it because you are holding diamond-studded high-tech shovels designed to make you feel modern!

It’s time we all realize this, throw away our shovels and bring in the electronic bulldozers. In my lab, I use my favorite e-bulldozer by picking up the microphone and saying, “Computer, take us to Athens this weekend.” The machine knows that “us” is two people, that we like to travel business class and that the weekend comprises three days; so it contacts the airline reservation computer and negotiates with it by typing the same query codes used by human travel agents. It usually takes me three seconds to command my machine in this way and 10 minutes for my machine (or me negotiating with the reservation computer) to complete the job. That’s a 20,000 percent human productivity gain. Not a bad e-bulldozer!

Computers have already helped increase human productivity in repetitive payroll, credit card and banking tasks and in design. But across the board of office work, results have been questionable: In the so-called “productivity paradox,” economists noted that in the decade of the 1980s, while manufacturing productivity rose by 17 percent, office-work productivity actually declined by nearly 7 percent.

In the noise and acrimony that followed this revelation, much was said about our inability to measure office productivity. Never mind. We don’t need precise statistics to conclude that with computers crawling out of every closet, we don’t seem to be working fewer hours at the office or achieving much more than we did before. Nor should we be placated by the often-touted notion that computers will do other things for us besides bulldozing. Computers are perfectly capable of raising human productivity, and we’ll be better off learning how to do it rather than looking for excuses.

The key for turning computers into powerful e-bulldozers is to identify concepts that will be shared among machines-in the airlines example the concepts of availability, date, class of service, fare and so forth. With such a list agreed upon, programs can be used on individual machines to negotiate with one another and carry out simple tasks. Developing the electronic forms (e-forms), as I call these lists of shared concepts, does not require high technology-a simple collection of pre-agreed codes is often adequate, as in the case of airline reservations. But that will not happen spontaneously. The people who stand to benefit by automating their manual office transactions must get together and agree on what to list in their e-forms. So, if the produce wholesalers or the X-ray specialists or any other common interest group wants to get their e-bulldozers going, they must agree on the e-forms they will use. Reaching human agreement, however, is usually tougher than inventing a new technology. That’s why there are hardly any e-bulldozers around at the moment.

Today, we hear about intelligent agents-programs that are supposed to roam the Web and represent us, searching for information we need, or doing other useful tasks on our behalf. The imagery is so seductive and the use of the term so frequent that one would think agents are already a well-established reality-sold at the corner store, as it were. Not so. Talking about an agent is invariably the restatement of a wish, to be carried out by a program that, somehow, often mystically, is expected to behave as we do. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to do this. To do useful work on our behalf, an agent must “understand” the information it will encounter as it roams. In other words, we are back to the difficult requirement that the agent must share concepts with the computers it visits on the Net.

Whether we call them agents or e-bulldozers, the programs that offload human work onto computers will materialize gradually, as people agree on the concepts they need to share and automate. And they will automate primarily simple clerical tasks. When this is done, by most common interest groups, well into the 21st century, we will have achieved perhaps 200 percent to 300 percent gains in human office productivity-as much as we did in the last 80 years of the Industrial Revolution. Then, we may proudly call the movement an Information Revolution, since it will have fulfilled people’s ancient quest to accomplish more while doing less.

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