This is not the future we were looking for. This why UBI will become a need, as no human would allow another human the job conditions the system seems to be bringing in. If industries are able to produce more efficiently without the costs of workers, their taxes would allow for a universal basic income.
In warehouses, call centers, and other sectors, intelligent machines are managing humans, and they’re making work more stressful, grueling, and dangerous
These automated systems can detect inefficiencies that a human manager never would — a moment’s downtime between calls, a habit of lingering at the coffee machine after finishing a task, a new route that, if all goes perfectly, could get a few more packages delivered in a day. But for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy, and as these little breaks and minor freedoms get optimized out, their jobs are becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous. …
…Any slack is perpetually being optimized out of the system, and with it any opportunity to rest or recover. A worker on the West Coast told me about a new device that shines a spotlight on the item he’s supposed to pick, to further accelerate the rate and get rid of what the worker described as “micro rests” stolen in the moment it took to look for the next item on the shelf.
There are robots of the ostensibly job-stealing variety in Amazon warehouses, but they’re not the kind that worry most workers. In 2014, Amazon started deploying shelf-carrying robots, which automated the job of walking through the warehouse to retrieve goods. The robots were so efficient that more humans were needed in other roles to keep up, Amazon built more facilities, and the company now employs almost three times the number of full-time warehouse workers it did when the robots came online. But the robots did change the nature of the work: rather than walking around the warehouse, workers stood in cages removing items from the shelves the robots brought them. Employees say it is one of the fastest-paced and most grueling roles in the warehouse. Reveal found that injuries were more common in warehouses with the robots, which makes sense because it’s the pace that’s the problem, and the machines that most concern workers are the ones that enforce it.
There was no single breakthrough in automated management, but as with the stopwatch, revolutionary technology can appear mundane until it becomes the foundation for a new way of organizing work. When rate-tracking programs are tied to warehouse scanners or taxi drivers are equipped with GPS apps, it enables management at a scale and level of detail that Taylor could have only dreamed of. It would have been prohibitively expensive to employ enough managers to time each worker’s every move to a fraction of a second or ride along in every truck, but now it takes maybe one. This is why the companies that most aggressively pursue these tactics all take on a similar form: a large pool of poorly paid, easily replaced, often part-time or contract workers at the bottom; a small group of highly paid workers who design the software that manages them at the top.
“The robot apocalypse is here,” said Joanna Bronowicka, a researcher with the Centre for Internet and Human Rights and a former candidate for European Parliament. “It’s just that the way we’ve crafted these narratives, and unfortunately people from the left and right and people like Andrew Yang and people in Europe that talk about this topic are contributing to it, they are using a language of the future, which obscures the actual lived reality of people right now.”
This isn’t to say that the future of AI shouldn’t worry workers. … But machine learning is capable of parsing much less structured data, and it’s making new forms of work, from typing at a computer to conversations between people, ready for robot bosses.
It’s become conventional wisdom that interpersonal skills like empathy will be one of the roles left to humans once the robots take over, and this is often treated as an optimistic future. But call centers show how it could easily become a dark one: automation increasing the empathy demanded of workers and automated systems used to wring more empathy from them, or at least a machine-readable approximation of it. Angela, the worker struggling with Voci, worried that as AI is used to counteract the effects of dehumanizing work conditions, her work will become more dehumanizing still.
“Nobody likes calling a call center,” she said. “The fact that I can put the human touch in there, and put my own style on it and build a relationship with them and make them feel like they’re cared about is the good part of my job. It’s what gives me meaning,” she said. “But if you automate everything, you lose the flexibility to have a human connection.”
On his first day, he was told to download a program called WorkSmart. In a video, Crossover CEO Andy Tryba describes the program as a “FitBit for work.” The modern worker is constantly interacting with cloud apps, he says, and that produces huge quantities of information about how they’re spending their time — information that’s mostly thrown away. That data should be used to enhance productivity, he says. Citing Cal Newport’s popular book Deep Work, about the perils of distraction and multitasking, he says the software will enable workers to reach new levels of intense focus. Tryba displays a series of charts, like a defragmenting hard drive, showing a worker’s day going from scattered distraction to solid blocks of uninterrupted productivity.
WorkSmart did, in fact, transform Rony’s day into solid blocks of productivity because if it ever determined he wasn’t working hard enough, he didn’t get paid. The software tracked his keystrokes, mouse clicks, and the applications he was running, all to rate his productivity. He was also required to give the program access to his webcam. Every 10 minutes, the program would take three photos at random to ensure he was at his desk. If Rony wasn’t there when WorkSmart took a photo, or if it determined his work fell below a certain threshold of productivity, he wouldn’t get paid for that 10-minute interval. Another person who started with Rony refused to give the software webcam access and lost his job.
Knowledge work currently languishes in a preindustrial state, Lessin wrote in a letter at the time of the pivot, with employees often sitting idle in offices, their labor unmeasured and inefficient. The hoped-for productivity explosion from AI won’t come from replacing these workers, Lessin wrote, but from using AI to measure and optimize their productivity, just as Frederick Taylor did with factory workers. Except this will be a “cloud factory,” an AI-organized pool of knowledge workers that businesses can tap into whenever they need it, much like renting computing power from Amazon Web Services.