The risks of algorithmic discrimination and bias have received much attention and scrutiny, and rightly so. Yet there is another more insidious side-effect of our increasingly AI-powered society — the systematic inequality created by the changing nature of work itself. We fear a future where robots take our jobs, but what happens when a significant portion of the workforce ends up in algorithmically managed jobs with little future and few possibilities for advancement?
One of the classic tropes of self-made success is the leader who comes from humble beginnings, working their way up from the mailroom, the cash register, or the factory floor. And while doing that is considerably tougher than Hollywood might suggest, bottom-up mobility was at least possible in traditional organizations. Charlie Bell, former CEO of McDonalds, started as a crew member flipping burgers. Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors, started on the assembly line. Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, started in a distribution center.
By comparison, how many Uber drivers do you think will ever have the chance to attain a managerial position at the company, let alone run the ride-sharing giant? How many future top Amazon executives will start their careers by delivering packages or stacking shelves? The billionaire founder and CEO of Instacart may have personally delivered the company’s first order, but how many others will follow in his footsteps?
Here’s the problem: There’s a “code ceiling” that prevents career advancement — irrespective of gender or race — because, in an AI-powered organization, junior employees and freelancers rarely interact with other human co-workers. Instead, they are managed by algorithms.
In this new era of digitally mediated work, there is typically a hierarchical information flow, in which the company decides the information they choose to share with you. Unlike driving a taxi, where there is open radio communication between drivers and the dispatch operator, and among the drivers themselves, when you work for Uber or Lyft, the content of your interactions is the output of an optimization function designed to maximize efficiency and profit.
To be managed algorithmically is to be subject to constant monitoring and surveillance. If you are one of the millions of food delivery workers in China working for Meituan or Ele.me, an algorithm determines how long it should take you to drop off an order, reducing your pay if you fail to meet your deadline. Similarly, employees in Amazon distribution centers are also carefully tracked by algorithms; they must work at “Amazon pace” — described as “somewhere between walking and jogging.”
When you are a gig economy worker, it is not only your AI bosses that should concern you; your co-workers are often also your competition. For example, Chicago residents who live near Amazon’s distribution points and Whole Foods stores reported the strange appearance of smartphones hanging from trees. The reason? Contract delivery drivers were desperate to trump their rivals for job assignments. They believed that hanging their devices near delivery stations would help them game the work allocation algorithm; a smartphone perched in a tree could be the key to getting a $15 delivery route mere seconds before someone else.
Work has been changing over the last few decades. The labor market has grown increasingly polarized, with middle-skill jobs being eroded relative to entry-level, low-skill work, and high-level employment that requires greater skill levels. The Covid-19 crisis has likely accelerated the process. Since 1990, every U.S. recession has been followed by a jobless recovery. This time, as AI, algorithms, and automation reshape the workforce, we may end up with something worse: a K-shaped recovery — where the prospects of those at the top soar, and everyone else sees their fortunes dive.
The new digital divide is a widening gap between workers with access to higher education, leadership mentoring, and job experience — and those without. In my recent book, The Algorithmic Leader, I explore one particularly dire scenario: a class-based divide between the masses who work for algorithms, a privileged professional class who have the skills and capabilities to design and train algorithmic systems, and a small, ultra-wealthy aristocracy, who own the algorithmic platforms that run the world.