Robot Apocalypse Already Exists, But It Looks Different From What You Expected

Perhaps the robot apocalypse hasn't yet arrived. It is. But many people aren't sure what to make of it. It's not the robot that is the problem

Andrew Yang’s disastrous presidential campaign was based on this warning. It helped propel his argument for universal basic income, which he claimed would be necessary as automation had left many workers out. This is the argument corporate executives use when they hear that they may have to increase wages. $14 an hour would just mean that machines will take your order at McDonald’s instead of people. This scare tactic works for some workers.

We often talk about robots taking our jobs, but we forget to consider how they have already changed them. Sometimes it is for the better, sometimes not. Companies can use new technologies to monitor, manage, and motivate their employees, sometimes in a negative way. Although the technology is not necessarily evil, it allows companies to monitor and manage their workers more effectively and maximize profits.

Brian Chen, a staff lawyer at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), stated that the primary incentives to the system are: employers want to maximize the value of their workers while minimizing labor costs, and the incentive to control, monitor, and surveil their employees.” “And if technology makes it easier or cheaper to do this, then they will use technology to do so.

Remote workers can be tracked using tracking software. This software saw an increase in sales during the pandemic. Delivery companies can use motion sensors in order to monitor their drivers and measure additional seconds.

While automation hasn’t wholly replaced warehouse workers, it has made work more difficult, more dangerous, and has changed the way workers are managed. Gig workers may be subject to the black-box algorithm of the app that allows workers to flood the app at a frenetic pace in exchange for low pay. Workers can be reliant on anonymous strangers to tip them how lucrative any trip or job is. Even worse, gig workers are working without the usual labor protections.

These robots are not taking jobs; they’re actually making them worse. Companies are automating the process of taking away autonomy, putting profit-maximizing strategies in digital overdrive. This makes work less rewarding and offers more options.

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Robot bosses can do so much more than just watching

Amazon has been the corporate poster boy for automation in the name of efficiency, often at the cost of workers. Amazon fulfillment centers have seen a lot of reports about unsustainable conditions and unrealistic expectations. According to reports, its drivers must consent to artificial intelligence monitoring. Slow warehouse workers can be fired.

There have been instances where people are urinating in plastic bottles in order to avoid having to take a break. Robots are not only watching but also taking over some of the work. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but sometimes it can be dangerous. As more automation puts more pressure on workers, robots may make work more difficult. According to one study, worker injuries were more common in Amazon warehouses equipped with robots than in warehouses that did not have them.

Companies automate away autonomy, putting profit-maximizing strategies in digital overdrive, doing workspace with fewer carrots but more sticks.

Amazon is not the only company that makes use of automation to monitor workers and encourage them to do more. Josh Dzieza, a reporter at the Verge, described the many ways artificial intelligence and software manage workers in places like call centers, warehouses, and software development shops. Dzieza told one remote engineer from Bangladesh was monitored by a program that took three photos of him every ten minutes to ensure he was at his computer. Another was a call center worker, who learned to apologize a lot to customers to meet an artificial intelligence-based Empathy monitor. The management of every minute of a working day has been made possible by a web of technologies.

Dzieza stated that it would have been prohibitively costly to hire enough managers to track each worker’s movements and ride along in every truck, but now, it only takes one. This is why companies that aggressively pursue these strategies all have a similar structure:

  • A large pool.
  • Often contract or part-time, poorly paid workers at the bottom.
  • A small number of highly paid workers create the software that manages them at the top.

Gartner’s 2018 survey revealed that half of the large companies already used non-traditional methods to monitor their employees. This includes analyzing communications, collecting biometric data, and looking at how workers use their workspace. These methods would be used by 80 percent of large corporations by 2020, according to Gartner. The trend picked up in the midst of the pandemic as companies seeking new ways to monitor the home-based workers.

Daron Acemoglu from MIT warned that they are also losing money. He stated that some of the new digital technologies aren’t just replacing workers, creating new tasks, or changing productivity. They are actually monitoring people more effectively, which means rents are divided very differently due to digital technologies and can have all kinds of consequences for workers who are constantly monitored and controlled by technology.

He gave an example of a delivery driver that is required to deliver a specified number of packages per day. Incentives to drive faster, harder, or longer hours were typical in the past. Now, the driver is constantly monitored to ensure that the company has a complete picture of their work and is always looking for ways to save. Instead of being awarded a bonus for meeting specific metrics, they are given a warning for taking too much time here and there.

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Technology is not the problem, but its managers and corporate structures view workers as sources of income instead of a cost

“Most of the boom in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, where venture capital made it easy for companies to start firms, didn’t prioritize the well-being of workers as one their primary considerations.”

Amy Bix, an Iowa State University historian who studies technology, said that “a lot of the boom in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship when venture capital made it very simple for companies to start firms didn’t exactly prioritize workers as one of its main considerations.” “Most of the work that goes into the structure of these corporations, as well as the development of technology, is hidden from the public eye. It’s easy to profit from this.”

Uber’s future is not driverless cars; it’s its drivers.

Uber was meant to be driverless.

Former CEO Travis Kalanick stated to Bloomberg that creating an autonomous vehicle was “basically a necessity” for the company in 2016. Dara Khosrowshahi, the current chief executive of Uber, stated that the company was “absolutely committed” to self-driving vehicles after a fatal accident in 2018. Uber’s self-driving vehicle was sold by Uber in December 2020, after having invested $1 billion. Lyft, the main competitor to Uber, followed its lead just four months later. Uber claims it isn’t giving up on autonomous technology, but the signs are clear that driverless cars won’t be a core part of Uber’s business model in the near future.

Chris Frank, director for corporate ratings at S&P Global, stated that drivers will still be a significant part of Uber’s business in five or ten years. “Drivers will also need to deal with more challenging conditions, such as inclement weather or poorly marked roads.

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Therefore, they will need workers to make their money, workers that they do not want to be classified as such

Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, all Gig Economy companies, are fighting to ensure that the drivers and passengers they hire to drive around or deliver goods are not employees. In California last year, these companies spent $200 million lobbying for Proposition 22. This allows app-based delivery and transportation companies to classify their employees as independent contractors, which means they can avoid paying benefits like sick leave, employer-provided healthcare, unemployment, and other benefits. A spokesperson for the campaign for Proposition 22 stated that it “represents future work in an increasingly technologically driven economy.”

This is a new future of work, and it might not be suitable for gig workers. Some workers in California claim they are not receiving the benefits promised by Prop 22. Although companies declared that workers would earn at least 120 percent of California’s minimum wages, this doesn’t take into account the time they spend driving. Research from the UC Berkeley Labor Center showed that the minimum wage would be guaranteed at $5.64 an hour.

According to companies, they have been open with drivers about how to get the health care stipend. This is for drivers who work more than 15 hours per week. Geoff Vetter, the spokesperson for Protect App-Based Drivers + Services Coalition (the lobbying group behind Prop 22), stated that 80% of drivers work less than 20 hours per workweek. Most drivers work less than 10 hours per workweek. Many also have health insurance through other jobs.

Sometimes gig companies are strict about their worker’s earnings, and they often change their formulas. Uber paid $20 million to the Federal Trade Commission in 2017 for misleading potential drivers about the app’s earning potential. FTC discovered that Uber claimed its drivers earned $74,000 in San Francisco and $90,000 in New York. However, their median incomes were $61,000 and $53,000, respectively. DoorDash was criticized for its decision to take tips and pay delivery workers with them. This has since been reversed.

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Despite Uber charging customers more for rides in the wake of the pandemics, this is not being passed on to drivers. The Washington Post reports that Uber changed how it paid California drivers soon after Prop 22 was passed. Instead of paying them – a percentage of the cost of a ride, they now pay them by distance and time, with bonuses and incentives, depending on the market and surge pricing. This is the way Uber does it in most other states, but it had made changes during the campaign to pass Prop 22. In a series of tweets, Uber’s CEO countered the Post story by arguing that California drivers had not been affected by decoupling driver pay and customer fares. Some drivers are getting a more significant cut of their rides.

Uber announced a $250 million driver stimulus to address a shortage. It promises drivers higher earnings and will increase their chances of getting back on the road. This initiative will likely be temporary, Uber acknowledges. It’s difficult not to notice how fast Uber and Lyft were able to dominate the ride-hailing market and have control over their drivers as well as customers.

“When a new product like this is introduced, there are huge consumer benefits. Over time, they become the market and have less competition than one another. It’s possible that they’re a cartel at some point. Then they do things that are much more dangerous,” stated David Autor, an economist from MIT.

Workers love the flexibility it provides and the freedom to work whenever they like. This is one of the main benefits of the gig economy. True, Lyft or Uber drivers have more freedom than warehouse workers at Amazon. Lyft spokesperson stated that Lyft drivers choose Lyft for the flexibility and freedom to work where they want, whenever they want, and for as long as they need. Lyft drivers are primarily outsiders, according to the spokesperson.

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However, big companies don’t have complete control over their drivers or delivery personnel. They employ all kinds of tricks and incentives in order to get workers to follow specific routes and manage them essentially by algorithms. Uber drivers complain about constant surveillance and lack of transparency. They also feel dehumanized by their work with the app. The algorithm doesn’t care about your day, and it just wants to maximize its profits.

Carlos Ramos, a former Lyft driver from San Diego, describes feeling manipulated by the app. Although he knew that the company needed morning drivers due to the incentive structures, he often wondered if he was being punished for not doing something right.

Many Lyft and Uber drivers believe that workers are secretly deprioritized. Sometimes, cancellations of multiple rides or the inability to take certain rides to certain places can result in you not getting any rides. You also don’t have any way to know what’s happening behind them. They have this exclusive knowledge, they have this black-box of trade secrets, and those are your secrets that you’re telling,” Ramos, who is now an organizer for Gig Workers Rising. He said, “They’ve shadow turned me off.”

Companies do not secretly cut off drivers; they deny. Lyft spokesperson stated that it was in the best interest of drivers to have a positive experience. They frequently communicate with drivers and work directly to improve drivers’ earnings. “We don’t want shadow ban’ drivers and coach them when they’re at risk of being deactivated.

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Innovation is not inevitable

Technology and innovation are often referred to as a language of inevitable. As if wages rise, it’s almost as if companies will replace workers with robots. It can seem as though the grocery industry is moving to gig work because of the availability of online delivery. That’s exactly what Albertsons did. However, this is not the truth. There’s plenty of human agency involved in technological innovation stories.

Chen stated that technology doesn’t necessarily have to exploit workers. However, it doesn’t mean robots will be coming to all our jobs. These are not inevitable outcomes. They are human decisions made by people driven by a profit motive, which tends to exploit the working class and poor historically.

Chase Copridge is a long-serving California worker who has worked in a variety of gig jobs, including Instacart and DoorDash, as well as Amazon Flex, Uber, Lyft, and Amazon Flex. He’s one of those people still stuck in this position, victim to corporate technocratic overdrive. He said that he saw delivery offers as low as $2. He declines those jobs, realizing that it is not financially worthwhile for him. There might be someone who is able to take it. He said, “We are people who need to survive and are willing to accept the minimum these companies offer us.” “These companies thrive on exploitation,” he said.

“Technology doesn’t necessarily have to be used to exploit workers. It doesn’t mean that robots will take over all our jobs.”

Automation decisions are not all about increasing productivity and improving corporate profits. While self-checkout machines may decrease the need for cashiers in the grocery store, are they actually making shopping easier or more efficient? If you find yourself at the grocery store, you make a mistake scanning your items, and then wait several minutes for a worker to arrive, please tell me.

Despite technological advances, productivity growth has been declining in recent years. Autor stated that while there have been many technological advances over the past several decades, especially since 2000 and in particular, productivity growth has been slowing. One reason could be that we automate a lot more trivial tasks than the important stuff. It may not be as important if you compare antibiotics, indoor plumbing, electrification, air travel, and telecommunications with DoorDash, smartphones, and self-checkout.

Acemoglu stated that firms that are too focused on automation and monitoring technologies might neglect to explore other areas, such as creating new jobs or creating new industries. Acemoglu said that these are the areas that he worries have been neglected in recent years. “If your employer really wants to keep you under constant surveillance, it can bias things against new tasks. These are the things that are more difficult to monitor.”

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It doesn’t matter what automation you use. Not all automation is equally helpful, not just for workers but also for customers, companies, and the broader economy

It is not effortless to learn how to deal with technological advances and how they affect people’s lives at work. Although automation isn’t replacing all jobs, it is transforming some, particularly in manufacturing. It’s not eliminating all jobs, but automation can make a lower-skilled job more attractive, with lower wages. The union, benefits, and steady pay that package delivery jobs had used to offer were declining with the advent of the gig economy. There will be low-quality jobs available to do the same tasks that robots cannot, even if self-driving trucks are made.

Autor stated that the US economy had faced a problem in that it has lost many middle-skill jobs, and people are being pushed down to lower levels. Automation has historically been known to take the most dangerous, demeaning, and demanding jobs and give them to machines. That’s been great. Automation has impacted middle-skill jobs over the past decade, leaving creative, hard-working jobs.

In recent decades, unionization has experienced a sharp decline. However, this is not inevitable. Because workers are often unable to resist, enforce limits or demand more, technology allows companies to make the most of their workers. America’s labor laws are based on full-time work. Gig companies do not have to provide health insurance or fund unemployment. However, many believe that the laws should be updated.

Bix stated that the key is not technology; it’s about labor power. There are many possible outcomes, but technology is ultimately a human invention. It is a result of social priorities, and what gets developed or adopted.”

Perhaps the robot apocalypse hasn’t yet arrived. It is. But many people aren’t sure what to make of it. It’s not the robot that is the problem, but what your boss wants it to do.

Thanks for reading.

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