Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - VII

As Robert Jungk says in Tomorrow is Already Here, ‘The devil has many names, and in this century he likes to call himself "Mr. Profit" or "Mr. Efficiency".'  He further writes: ‘Planning down to the smallest detail, control of each labor process, the abolition of all possible waste of time, characterize the American earning system. The same smooth functioning is required of the man as of the machine. "Efficiency" has grown more important in the working world than freedom.‘ One manifestation of this obsession with efficiency is “clopening”, closing late at night and opening again just a few hours later.

In the US, many businesses rely on scheduling software that determine the number of workers required and exactly when they are required using sales patterns and other data from thousands of locations. They can bring in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing. Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families.

Having the same employee close the store late at night and open it again at dawn makes logistical sense for a company. Many employees find out only a day or two in advance that they are scheduled for 'clopening'. This results in unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: “How many hours do you work?” and “What do you earn?” Previously, inefficiencies in the workplace benefited workers by giving them regular working hours and time to read / study. Now they are under the control of software and they are kept busy every minute (praised by authorities as 'hard work') which makes them 'better' cogs in the wheel.

The automation of many entry-level roles will make it even harder for young people to gain traction in the working world. It is thought that two-thirds of the job losses for young people could occur in food, hospitality, or retail. One-third of the automation-related job losses for young people could occur in white-collar jobs, including entry-level roles in accounting, finance, human resources, and administration. In the legal profession, for example, AI can handle document review and case law search — not a favorite task for junior attorneys, but it provides valuable opportunities for learning. Now AI is outperforming humans at these tasks. This means aspiring young professionals will need to enter the labor force in higher-level roles. But employers have been saying for years that too many new hires, even those with college degrees, are not work-ready.

Online commerce allows even conscientious consumers to forget that other people are involved. Amazon employs or subcontracts tens of thousands of warehouse workers, with seasonal variation. Accounts from inside the centers describe the work of picking, boxing, and shipping books and dog food and beard trimmers as a high-tech version of the dehumanized factory floor satirized in Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Pickers holding computerized handsets are perpetually timed and measured as they fast-walk up to eleven miles per shift around a million-square-foot warehouse, expected to collect orders in as little as thirty-three seconds. Warehouse jobs are gradually being taken over by robots. Bezos recently predicted that, in five years, packages will be delivered by small drones. Then Amazon will have eliminated the human factor from shopping.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari says that Computer scientists are developing artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can learn and analyse massive amounts of data and recognize patterns with superhuman efficiency. At the same time, biologists and social scientists are deciphering human emotions, desires and intuitions. The merger of info-tech and biotech is giving rise to algorithms that can successfully analyse us and communicate with us, and that may soon outperform human doctors, drivers, soldiers and bankers in such tasks. These algorithms could eventually push hundreds of millions out of the job market.

This has already happened in the field of medicine. The most important medical decisions in your life are increasingly based not on your feelings of illness or wellness, or even on the informed predictions of your doctor — but on the calculations of computers who know you better than you know yourself. This situation is likely to take place in more and more fields. It starts with simple things, like which book to buy and read. Harari speculates that in the 21st century we will create more powerful myths and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds.

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