How Hard Will The Robots Make Us Work?

How Hard Will The Robots Make Us Work?

In warehouses(ˈwerˌhous), call centers, and other sectors(ˈsektər), intelligent(inˈteləjənt) machines are managing humans, and they’re making work more stressful(stressful), grueling(ˈgro͞oəliNG), and dangerous

By Josh Dzieza

On conference(ˈkänf(ə)rəns) stages(stāj) and at campaign(kamˈpān) rallies(ˈralē), tech executives(iɡˈzekyədiv) and politicians(ˌpäləˈtiSHən) warn of a looming automation(ˌôdəˈmāSH(ə)n) crisis(ˈkrīsis) — one where workers are gradually(ˈgrajo͞oəlē), then all at once, replaced by intelligent machines. But their warnings mask the fact that an automation crisis has already arrived. The robots are here, they’re working in management, and they’re grinding(ˈgrīndiNG) workers into the ground.

The robots are watching over hotel housekeepers, telling them which room to clean and tracking how quickly they do it. They’re managing software developers, monitoring their clicks and scrolls(skrōl) and docking their pay if they work too slowly. They’re listening to call center workers, telling them what to say, how to say it, and keeping them constantly, maximally(ˈmaksəməl) busy. While we’ve been watching the horizon(həˈrīzən) for the self-driving trucks, perpetually(pərˈpeCHo͞oəlē) five years away, the robots arrived in the form of the supervisor(ˈso͞opərˌvīzər), the foreman(ˈfôrmən), the middle manager.

These automated systems can detect inefficiencies(ˈˌinəˈfiSHənsē, ˈˌinēˈfiSHənsē) that a human manager never would — a moment’s downtime between calls, a habit of lingering(ˈliNGg(ə)riNG) at the coffee machine after finishing a task, a new route(rout,ro͞ot) that, if all goes perfectly, could get a few more packages delivered(dəˈlivər) in a day. But for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves(rəˈzərv) of respite(riˈspīt,ˈrespət) and autonomy(ôˈtänəmē), and as these little breaks and minor(ˈmīnər) freedoms get optimized(ˈäptəˌmīz) out, their jobs are becoming more intense(inˈtens), stressful, and dangerous. Over the last several months, I’ve spoken with more than 20 workers in six countries. For many of them, their greatest fear isn’t that robots might come for their jobs: it’s that robots have already become their boss.