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Data Sheet—Why Bots Are a Big Part of the Future of Work

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I was in Las Vegas yesterday attending the annual user conference of a business software company called ServiceNow. It’s a $30-billion-plus market value company you wouldn’t have heard of if you don’t work in the guts of your company’s IT department. But credit ServiceNow—which started by automating “tickets” that route internal tasks—for capturing commercial value from mundane jobs others hadn’t monetized.

A few takeaways:

* ServiceNow’s CEO for one year is John Donahoe, the former CEO of eBay. In his keynote he noted that tech at work, compared with consumer technology, is pretty bad. “No one would call it simple, easy to use, or intuitive,” he says, implying that ServiceNow aims to change that.

* At its annual update for Wall Street analysts, ServiceNow says it aspires to having as much as $15 billion in revenue in a few years, up from just under $2 billion last year.

* Talking to chief information officers at the event, I heard repeatedly that many are giving human names to the “bots” running various tasks on their information systems in the hopes the anthropomorphizing will allay human fears. Example: Magellan Health’s employee portal is called Vern, which stands for “virtual employee resource network.” It comes complete with a goofy-looking human-like animated presence.

* Tech leaders have begun thinking of the needs of their machines in the same way they think about their employees. “Accenture has tens of thousands of non-human workers,” says Andrew Wilson, the firm’s chief information officer. That’s interesting, if a little scary.

The “future of work” is one of the abiding new buzz phrases of our age. Consider these topics a small window on what that future will look like.

Adam Lashinsky
@adamlashinsky
adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

About that Turing Test. Kicking off of its annual I/O developer conference on Tuesday, Google offered some insanely cool—but maybe also creepy—demonstrations of its artificial intelligence technology. In one jaw dropping sequence, an AI app called Google Duplex made phone calls and conversed naturally with humans to book restaurant reservations and make an appointment for a manicure. Google posted a bit more explanation about how it works and included the audio tracks. The company also showed off augmented reality features, like a camera app that could copy text from a document in the real world and paste it into a document on the phone. And Google’s Assistant is getting six new voices, including one based on singer John Legend.

Invisible man. Also at I/O, Google’s sister company, self-driving car startup Waymo, showed up to announce the launch of a taxi-like service in Phoenix later this year. People in the city will be able to hail an autonomous Waymo car via mobile app and be taken to their destinations without anyone sitting in the driver’s seat.

Legislative legerdemain. Senators in favor of the 2015 net neutrality rules repealed by the Trump administration are moving ahead on Wednesday with their plan to force a vote to reinstate the policy. Though the effort, which relies on the Congressional Review Act, faces long odds—the group of all 49 Senate Democrats and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—could win passage while Sen. John McCain is out on medical leave. But the move would then face difficult odds in the House and is unlikely to be signed by President Trump.

Give the people what they want. Users of the Nintendo Switch will finally be able to back up their game data to the cloud. The company announced it will launch a $20-a-year service in September called Nintendo Switch Online, which will also offer online group play and access to some classic games like Donkey Kong. A family plan covering up to eight accounts will be $35.

Replanting Zuckerberg’s garden. Facebook reorganized some of its top corporate leadership in the wake of the recent departure of the co-founders of WhatsApp, Recode reports. Chief Product Officer Chris Cox, who had overseen the core Facebook app, now also will run Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. David Marcus, the former PayPal executive, gives up Messenger and will head a new group exploring uses of blockchain technology. And Javier Olivan, vice president for growth, takes charge of a group called “central product services,” which includes security, advertising, and growth.

You stink, boss. The site that started out letting employees complain anonymously about their managers, Glassdoor, has been sold for $1.2 billion. Acquirer Japanese HR services firm Recruit Holdings will continue to operate the site, which has added job listings, pay data, and other features over the years.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

New York City’s transit network is the largest in the world, carrying some six million riders per day. But since the system installed Wi-Fi service in many stations, riders increasingly have been taking to social media to broadcast their complaints about late trains and the like, sometimes in profanity-filed tirades on Twitter. So the system created a social media team to respond in real time. Its two Twitter accounts have over 2 million followers. Mike Vilensky portrays a day in the life of those responders in a piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Worst Job in America.”

“They are a pin cushion for people to take out their anger,” said Karen Kessler, a communications consultant and crisis expert, “and they have limited tools at their disposal besides a thesaurus for 15 ways to say ‘Sorry, we’re working on it.’”

The social team sits in a 24/7 rail control center in Manhattan, surrounded by screens showing train service information in real time. Speakers crackle with updates on police or fire activity, and station managers, engineers, technicians, and other subway staffers supplying information are within earshot.

Steven Leonard, one of the MTA social staffers, said he has come to know “the regulars.” “One person [I recognize] can just tweet us ‘where’s my train,’ and I already know this person is somewhere around Howard Beach waiting for a northbound to Manhattan,” said the Queens resident. “You just gotta reassure them.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Telecom Tycoon John Malone Is Scaling Back His European Empire By David Meyer

How Blockchain Could Help Restore Power in Puerto Rico By Polina Marinova

SpaceX Lays the Groundwork For Manned Spaceflight By Chris Morris

Chat App Kik Launches Second Blockchain to Boost Its Token Economy By Jeff John Roberts

20% of Americans Say Their Next Car Will Be Electric By Kirsten Korosec

BEFORE YOU GO

I was reminded this morning of the detective character played by Denis Leary in The Thomas Crown Affair, who once denigrated the world of famous paintings as “a couple of swirls of paint that are really only important to some very silly rich people.”

Well, if so those silly rich people are very rich indeed. At a Christie’s auction this week of artworks formerly owned by Peggy and David Rockefeller, one bidder paid $115 million for a controversial portrait of a naked girl by Pablo Picasso and another offered $81 million for a painting by Henri Matisse of a semi-naked woman. Personally, I liked Eugene Delacroix’s 1862 painting of a tiger that went for just $10 million. I guess that makes me silly, too.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.