AI-powered technologies are changing the nature of work, for better and for worse. Yes, smart machines and automation technologies are being leveraged across global industries to drive greater efficiency and output at a fraction of the financial cost of human labour.
However, despite the vast benefits these technological disruptions provide, they also come at a worryingly greater cost to the global workforce of tomorrow: algorithm-centric business approaches potentially exacerbating economic inequality.
The ‘code ceiling’
According to a brilliant Harvard Business Review article penned by futurist and author Mike Walsh, AI-powered organisations have a ‘code ceiling’ that prevents upward mobility and career advancement due to the fact that most of the incoming workforce — especially freelance and junior positions — rarely interact with human coworkers but instead are managed by algorithms.
With little possibility of moving up in the job market, the result is those lucky enough to secure a job are forced to occupy the same position throughout their time in the workforce, effectively killing aspirations for personal growth through advancements in career, salary, and skills. This leads to a model of fit-for-purpose labour that essentially creates a workforce of lids designed only to fit very specific pots.
The concept of working from the bottom to rise up through the ranks of a traditional organisation is set to become a relic of a bygone era. The ‘code ceiling’ of AI-powered businesses prevents this aspirational trope to continue as humans are increasingly being managed by algorithms aimed at increasing efficiency and profit. These come in the form of time and location tracking and assessment monitoring.
With daily tasks being managed by an algorithmic feedback loop, it not only makes asking for a raise or getting permission for a bathroom break more cumbersome for workers, but it also creates systemic inequality due to the hierarchy of information flow.
Amazon is gaining a reputation for getting machines to crack the whip on human factory workers. According to widespread reports, Amazon has used AI to track hundreds of fulfilment centre employees and fire them for failing to meet productivity quotas. “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors” according to the report.
In machine management working environments, like most factories and ride-hailing businesses, for example, company leaders only need to share information with employees that help them perform their duties. There is no requirement to inform workers of holistic business approaches and strategies. This reduces the ability for workers to gain upward mobility within an organisation as they are only fed information pertaining to their specific tasks.
The digital divide
The data shows that the gap between employees who are highly educated and skilled and those who are not is widening. In Walsh’s recent book The Algorithmic Leader: How To Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You (2019), he explores a potential future scenario where there is 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’.
This dire scenario shows what a future of the gig economy run on algorithms might look like. The feedback loop of job leads transmitted and managed by smart devices locks workers into an echo chamber that, once inside, is very difficult to escape. Thus, a global workforce of employees tied into performing specific tasks at a specific wage will be controlled by a small group of employers which leaves little to no room for upward mobility and economic equality.
Another well-known futurist and author, Martin Ford, suggests that this scenario of automation taking over and eradicating human jobs is already on track to becoming a reality in the next 10-15 years. He states that when you break it down, the greatest asset humans have to live a comfortable life is the value of their labour. However, the rapid pace of our global technological advancements threatens to devalue our labour as machines run on algorithms are able to perform many of these repetitive tasks, at a fraction of the cost. With our global population increasing each year, matched with the rate of our technological advancements, the future value of human labour is in jeopardy.
Although automation is predominantly designed to assist humans with repetitive, rules-based tasks, the continuous evolution of machine learning capabilities is now beginning to threaten not only blue-collar but also white-collar jobs. Ford states that “what we see now is that this technology is much broader, it’s beginning to displace cognitive capability or even intellectual capability”. This is set to dramatically alter the working landscape of tomorrow as these sectors comprise the majority of the global workforce.
How to prevent algorithm inequality of tomorrow
Sure, technological advancements will displace many jobs but will also create new ones. However, what it displaces it cannot replace entirely: far from it, in fact. The people who are likely to be displaced by algorithms in the coming years, predominantly white- and blue-collar employees, are not going to be able to necessarily take up the new positions that technology will introduce into society. Most new positions will involve creating or working closely with the technology used to displace many workers, so the affected workers cannot realistically be expected to easily adopt these new positions because if they could, they wouldn’t be displaced in the first place. A disparity will arise, the evil twin of inequality.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Knowing that the future will consist of machines automating predictable, repetitive, and routine jobs previously occupied by humans, society will need to anticipate this and leverage human qualities that cannot be automated…yet.
We are now given the exciting opportunity to leverage our creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to create a future society that rewards human-centricity. With mundane tasks operating off of algorithms, it frees us up to tap into our collective imagination and create a job landscape that rewards and embraces creativity to be used as a tool to shape our future.