Excerpt from the article The Machines Are Coming
By Zeynep Tufekci
A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the
border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than
humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has
gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the
government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV
Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.
Not just low-wage jobs, either.
Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human
faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have
started being able to carry out
conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.
Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to
pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale.
In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are
lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.
To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only
algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which
can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of
what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and
recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.
But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of
power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation
that threatens jobs is to encourage
workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the
nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways.
But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more
leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.
Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans,
but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more
predictable and easier to control
than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace
is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.
This used to be spoken about more openly. An ad in 1967 for an automated accounting
system urged companies to replace humans with automated systems that “can’t quit,
forget or get pregnant.” Featuring a visibly pregnant, smiling woman leaving the office with
baby shower gifts, the ads, which were published in
leading business magazines, warned
of employees who “know too much for your own good” — “your good” meaning that of the
employer. Why be dependent on humans? “When Alice leaves, will she take your billing
system with her?” the ad pointedly asked, emphasizing that this couldn’t be fixed by
simply replacing “Alice” with another person.
The solution? Replace humans with machines. To pregnancy as a “danger” to the
workplace, the company
could have added “get sick, ask for higher wages, have a bad
day, aging parent, sick child or a cold.” In other words, be human.
I recently had a conversation with a call center worker from the Philippines. While trying to
solve my minor problem, he needed to get a code from a supervisor. The code didn’t
work. A groan escaped his lips: “I’m going to lose my job.” Alarmed, I inquired why. He
had done nothing wrong, and it was a small issue. “It
doesn’t matter,” he said.
He was probably right. He is dispensable. Technology first allowed the job to be
outsourced. Now machines at call centers can be used to seamlessly generate spoken
responses to customer inquiries, so that a single operator can handle multiple customers
all at once. Meanwhile, the customer often isn’t aware that she is mostly being spoken to
by a machine.
This is the way technology is being used in many workplaces: to reduce the power of
humans, and employers’ dependency on them, whether by replacing, displacing or
surveilling them. Many technological developments contribute to this shift in power:
advanced diagnostic systems that can do medical or legal analysis; the ability to
outsource labor to the lowest-paid workers, measure employee tasks to the minute and
“optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives. Indeed, regardless of
unemployment has gone up or down, real wages have been stagnant or declining
in the United States for decades. Most people no longer have the leverage to bargain.
[…] It’s easy to imagine an alternate future where advanced machine capabilities are used
to empower more of us, rather than control most of us. There will potentially be more time,
60 resources and freedom to share, but only if we change how we do things. We don’t need
to reject or blame technology. This problem
is not us versus the machines, but between
us, as humans, and how we value one another.
Source: Tufekci, Zeynep. “The Machines Are Coming.” The New York Times. April 18, 2015. Accessed March
13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/
 eerily: strangely
 tenor: tone
 to nudge: to encourage someone to do something
 to enter the equation: to become something that must be considered or dealt with
 leverage: power, advantage
 pesky: annoying
 billing system: process of stating payment terms, German: Abrechnungssystem