If the Oxford University report warning that artificial intelligence is going to destroy half of all jobs in the next 25 years didn't worry you, then Elon Musk's predictions that robots could turn on us and destroy humanity probably did. Wherever you turn these days, you're likely to hear experts wringing their hands about how A.I. run amok could destroy our future.

These doomsday predictions certainly make for a catchy article, but what if it's not the robots that are sinister but many of those who are warning about them?

That's the conclusion of activist Astra Taylor in a new article for tech magazine Logic. In the thought-provoking piece, she argues that the recent robo panic has largely been ginned up by bosses with the aim of holding down wages and squeezing more from workers.   

Fear is a fabulous motivator

Technophobes offering predictions of doom are nothing new. Tech change has upended entire industries and ways of life throughout history. In the mid-19th century, half of Americans were farmers, for instance. Today, 2 percent of us are.

What's also not new is for an employer to use terror of a big change to make workers feel insecure, driving them to work harder. Just think of John Henry literally killing himself in a bid to prove his superiority to a steel-driving steam engine in the old folktale.

Something similar is going on today, Taylor insists. Machines are getting smarter and the mix of jobs available to workers will shift, one day perhaps dramatically. But right now the fear of those changes is being "wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment," she says.

When fast food workers started organizing for a $15 minimum wage, Taylor points out, former McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi responded: "It's not just going to be in the fast food business. If you can't get people a reasonable wage, you're going to get machines to do the work ... And the more you push this, it'll just happen faster." Plenty of other commentators echoed his comments.

The message was clear: Work harder for less or robots will take your job.

"Fauxtomation" means more free work  

But will they really? If so, Rensi makes a decent point. Yes, fast food workers would lose out, but consumers and the broader economy would win. But Taylor insists that, at least currently, most of the time the half-baked forms of automation actually available don't so much eliminate work as sneakily shift it onto people who have to do it for free.

Supermarket self-checkouts and check-in kiosks at airports are the most obvious examples of what Taylor dubs "fauxtomation," but as computer scientist and author Cal Newport has pointed out, the same dynamic happens at offices too. Bosses bring in "productivity-boosting tech," using it to justify a reduction in the number of support staff. Knowledge workers end up managing their own calendars and booking their own travel.

He cites one analysis that showed "skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees ... several factors explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of 'productivity-enhancing' computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff."

All of these moves nudge people toward accepting the idea that their labor, whether in the form of checking someone into a flight or coordinating a meeting, isn't worth anything. They don't need to be compensated for it and neither does anyone else.

Taylor's long article digs much deeper into these ideas, dipping into everything from feminist theories about uncompensated domestic labor to the hidden work of the low-wage contractors who sanitize our social media feeds of horrific content to Thomas Jefferson's use of dumbwaiters to hide his slaves from view. Sometimes quite theoretical and bristling with anger, the piece isn't for everyone, but it raises a valid question.

Technological change is real, but the way technology gets used and talked about is up to us. (As this startup shows, robo burger flippers can actually be used to pay fast food employees more, for instance.)

"There is no denying that technological possibilities that could hardly be imagined a generation ago now exist, and that artificial intelligence and advances in machine learning and vision put a whole new range of jobs at risk," Taylor allows, but as robots get smarter we choose how to divide the spoils.

In the meantime, we can call out those who are merely using the fear of A.I. to squeeze more work out of employees and consumers, enriching themselves at everyone else's expense.

Do you agree with Taylor that a lot of "automation" is really just a way to squeeze more work out of people without compensating them fairly for it?

Published on: Oct 10, 2018