UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — In connection with fears about the upcoming abolition of human labor under the pressure of a wave of smart machines, our societies need to learn how to ask the right questions. A sensible decision would be not to focus on the exact number of jobs that will be replaced in the future, but rather focus on the current metamorphoses in the field of “digital work”.
For decades, the growing introduction of digital technology in physical and mental labor has increased the production share of data in every profession. The trend is related to the desire of enterprises to fragment and uniformize production processes in connection with the ecosystem of external contractors, subcontractors and even communities of non-professional manufacturers.
This also explains the proliferation of digital platforms that coordinate these participants and turn them into an obedient and cheap workforce, available for a clearly defined period of time to carry out increasingly fragmented tasks. Everywhere before our eyes, this data-production job defines the lives of couriers and drivers who work through the Uber app and set their location using GPS.
The same applies to the moderators of YouTube and Facebook, who spend all day checking the multimedia content. Even the free work that we do, passing the reCAPTCHA test (pop-ups where you need to prove that you are not a robot) for Google, teaches autonomous cars of the Internet giant to recognize traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.
Such low-paid or completely unpaid activities form a whole space and contributes to the automation of our professions. Profession of the future: artificial intelligence trainer, tuner of algorithms that will allow our robots to deliver, drive and maneuver.
Although this digital work is a secret component of our automation, today it is extremely poorly regulated by social protection and has not received political recognition. This human work will remain with us for a long time, but if our struggle does not lead to new social gains, it will remain invisible to most objects of exploitation.
Antonio Casilli, sociologist, professor Télécom Paris and research fellow at the Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Craft production helps “creators”
Since 2008, there have been two trends in the world of work. On the one hand, artificial intelligence, international platforms and financial globalization have led to a strong division of labor with the advent of microtasks. On the other hand, the opposite current is also gaining strength: “makers”.
We are talking about people who use digital technology to transfer production to the so-called “production laboratories” (fabrication laboratories). They can produce both general consumer goods (clothes, furniture, bicycles, personalized computers …), as well as a variety of things up to small houses with an area of about 100 square meters.
This movement is a continuation of the long do-it-yourself tradition in the United States. It took an organized and international form in 2005, when Make magazine was founded. The main production laboratory in the USA is called Artisan’s Asylum. It is located in Somerville (a municipality within the framework of Greater Boston) and has allowed the formation of about fifty enterprises and startups in the first year since the opening.
The creators are carpenters, designers, architects, young engineers, specialists in the humanities and social sciences, metal processing, digital technologies and computer science.
Their production is at the local level, based on short chains and small volumes. Of course, the Do-It-Yourself approach is nothing new. Novelty concerns the alliance of digital technologies, the economy of free licenses and handicraft production. It is about the emergence of a kind of digital handicraft, which paves the way for new ways of organizing labor, piece production, without hierarchy and division of labor on the periphery of capitalism.
This movement pushes to action, creation and dissemination on an individual level, echoes the environmental concerns of post-productivity. The philosophy of the creators involves the return of human power over the subject.
It is about creating objects, analyzing them to overcome obstacles created by vertical capitalism, for example, planned obsolescence. The creators advocate the democratization of production and the relationship between consumers and producers. Their number is growing across the planet.
Isabelle Berrebi-Hoffmann, Sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research
Will AI machines dominate and replace us in the long run? The debate around AI ethics is certainly interesting, but so far it is only speculation. Therefore, they should not push aside the much more important and relevant issues of regulating Internet giants (including Chinese) and their algorithms. The fact is that the “platformization” of the economy by these enterprises further enhances globalization and weakens those who should regulate them: the state.
In addition, the “algorithmization” of a larger part of our lives leads to the fact that a person loses reference points and sometimes does not even realize the alienation he has encountered. Although digital innovations bring unprecedented progress and transformations, as well as redistributing power in favor of the individual, one cannot but admit that today they also lead to the “takeover” of labor, depriving workers of social protection.
Can cities, regions, and political authorities make full decisions on land development policies if houses can turn into hotels (Airbnb), streets turn into highways, and sidewalks turn into tracks for scooters (Waze, Google Maps, Uber, Lime) from – for one simple application that changes the use of spaces without physically changing them? Will it be possible to maintain collective solidarity mechanisms tomorrow if our children receive education through the California online course, and we will be treated through the Chinese medical platform?
There is nothing new in replacing part of labor with robots: it started back in the 1970s. The only exception is that in the past this tendency destroyed and changed the labor of workers, and today it is mistaken for employees: everything is under attack.
Note that now those professions that seemed unshakable to us were at risk: a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, an architect, etc. This does not mean that a doctor’s appointment will replace a chat with a bot. No, the doctor, like many other professions, will retain its role in confirming the diagnosis and treating the patient.
The impact of artificial intelligence is not so much destroying as changing professions, and in this regard, the issue of education will only become more important. This will require strong government policies, although platforms are starting to compete with states and significantly weaken them.
Now we should first of all discuss precisely this issue, and not the ethics of AI, which still remains in the hypothetical sphere. This is somewhat reminiscent of survivism and collapsology, which are only harmful to the environment.
Benoit Tielen, Founder of La Netscouade Digital Innovation Agency, Former Chairman of the National Council for Digital Technology
AI magic hides human labor
At the end of the XVIII century, all Europeans fell victim to the rally: the “mechanical Turk” was presented as a player in an automatic chess machine, although in reality he was a puppet over which a real player was sitting in a hidden room. Today, all this is no longer a joke: artificial intelligence is quite capable of chess. Nevertheless, he still does not know how to navigate the city to deliver goods, prepare and pack dishes, or clean up his office.
Many AI-based digital platforms give the impression that everything is automated, and that just a click of a button is enough for a product or service to appear as if by magic. In fact, this requires a lot of human hands.
In 2019, Amazon was the second largest US employer (750,000 employees), second only to the giant Walmart network. Moreover, the company contributed to the creation of a large number of jobs in the field of delivery and logistics, where many people work hard so that the goods “magically” were at the customer’s day of purchase.
At one time it was believed autonomous cars and drones would make a person unnecessary in delivery. This is not true. Not a single autonomous car can drive in the areas with the densest traffic, and the drone cannot contact its neighbors or leave the parcel if the recipient is not at home.
With the advent of “logistics of the last kilometer” and local goods and services offered through platforms, AI is actively creating jobs. However, they are often invisible to the eye. These people work somewhere far away, in warehouses or kitchens. In addition, they are usually not full-time employees, work under a fixed-term contract, and therefore they partially drop out of statistics.
The beginning of labor automation should not obscure another, even more important tendency: the replacement of “good” and protected jobs with “bad”, that is, low-paid and unstable. The future goal of labor is to form social protection institutions and trade unions that will help these people get a decent life.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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