This week: programming for obsolescence, raising minimums, and lettuce-loving robots. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
Robots of the week
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Disclaimer: We would like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world.
Okay let's start.
Sandra: Today on The Future, This Week: programming for obsolescence, raising minimums, and lettuce-loving robots. I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: And I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai: Our first story comes from The Atlantic and it's titled 'The coders programming themselves out of a job'. Now this article starts off by reporting on discussions on the online forum Reddit where a couple of programmers over the past couple of years have reported ways in which they have automated their own jobs. So the article is about job automation more broadly but a particular phenomenon where people with coding skills, programmers who have jobs often with lots of menial tasks have taken it upon themselves to automate much of what they are doing and it centres around the ethical dilemma of whether or not you should actually tell your employer so people reporting that they have all this spare time because their task with data entry or solving certain problems on the computer which they have automated by writing scripts or little programs but never told their employer and now go about playing computer games or doing more interesting work in the organisation, all the while the actual job is being done in a matter of minutes rather than hours and so the question being asked is who owns the fruits of this labour - is it the employer, is the worker, is it okay for workers to do this? And what does it teach us about automation more broadly.
Sandra: One such theory that the article reports is from a coder at a very well-known company that within eight months of arriving on this job that mostly involves quality assurance, he had automated it to such an extent to which he says "for forty hours each week I go to work, play League of Legends in my office, browse Reddit and do whatever I like. In the past six years, I have maybe done 50 hours of real work." And obviously when his bosses realised how little he's been working, they fired him. And the article goes on to report on another post later that year where another programmer asked is it not ethical for me not to tell my employer I've automated my job? And let's remember this conversation is new in terms of automating your job...
Kai:...but there have been similar stories in the past where people had outsourced or offshored their entire jobs to people in other countries over the Internet at lower wages, given them part of their salary all the while having a nice life enjoying leisure time, pocketing their much higher salaries.
Sandra: This was quite a famous story back in 2013, so about five years ago the story of programmer Bob went around the world. Programmer Bob had outsourced his job to someone in China. The report was that the man in his 40s, a star programmer earning a six figure salary at an American infrastructure company had outsourced his job to a Chinese software company for about a fifth of his pay so having done that Bob would, much like our computer programmer now, spent his entire day at the office looking at Ebay, looking at Facebook, watching cat videos and writing progress reports for his bosses.
Kai: And much like now, back then Bob was fired when the company learned about what he did and it raises the same question today. To what extent are workers in charge of organising their own work, their own labour. Is it okay to outsource, to give away part of the work or to automate work? And what does that actually tell us about the nature of work?
Sandra: First of all this raises an interesting question about whether the programmer or Bob should indeed get higher if they are paid the salary for achieving certain results at work and they find ingenious ways of achieving that result, you could argue they're still doing what they were contracted for. They're not paid by the hour, they are paid by the outputs of their labour hence they're still delivering on what they have agreed to. Or are they?
Kai: So the article makes the point that if the coder or programmer sat in front of the computer all day long manually inputting data or doing whatever they were tasked to do, they would never be reprimanded but when they demonstrate high levels of programming skill, automating what they're doing perversely they feel like they're shirking a duty to the company that employed them and the article says this is perhaps why automating work can feel like cheating and be treated as such by corporate policy.
Sandra: On the other hand if we punish such behaviour what are the incentives of people who are part of your organisation who are not necessarily in a leadership position, what are their incentives to improve on the work or on the processes of our organisation if that results in them getting fired? These people see an opportunity to make the work better or easier or more efficient, if I punish them for it there will be no incentive for anyone in the organisation to speed up their work, to make it more efficient or to automate it in any way.
Kai: And the punishment doesn't have to be a direct one. So the punishment would come when I automate my work and I never tell the company about it, but the article reports about yet another case where someone automated their job and the company thanked them with just firing them because they were no longer needed. And so that raises a bigger point about how we organise work. So, to me what is interesting is not necessarily the answer to the question is it unethical for me not to tell my employer I've automated my job, but the very basis on which we ask that question so what is work like these days and in many organisations work is organised more like a transaction. I give you a set of tasks to perform I give you a salary for doing it, I don't necessarily trust you, I control you, but it is essentially a transaction where you perform work for money. If that is the set up then the worker could feel that they have every right to perform that work with whatever little effort they could possibly do provided they produce the outcome and the right quality and in each of those cases the article says that the quality that they produce was actually spotless because they really solved the problem to a high quality standard. The problem is that under such a model there's no real incentive for the individual worker to solve the problem such that the organisation actually benefits when the worker doesn't feel that they are working for a greater whole and be rewarded for the kind of automation that they do by being given other tasks or getting a raise. So in this kind of adversarial setup where I perform tasks against payment but I must fear that if I automate, I lose my job, what incentive do I have to actually improve the organisation as a whole?
Sandra: And not only might you lose your job but the IP that you create as part of the work that you do in an organisation remains the property of the organisation you work for. So not only are you losing your job but you're also losing the rights to the improvements to the efficiency gains, to the automation that you've created as part of that job.
Kai: And so the article makes the point that self-automation can be empowering under the right circumstances but that it is increasingly just another tool that management exerts over their employees whereas the Harvard Business Review points out employees will increasingly need to automate their own jobs or get moved out. So when this kind of skill of automating your job is just used against the employee, what incentive is there and is this actually the right way to improve the organisation, its efficiency, its processes when in fact there's this Damocles Sword hanging over employees who are too keen and eager and skilled at automating the work that they do.
Sandra: In its conclusion the article actually points to the fact that maybe these coders and programmers and people who automate their own jobs could be in a unique position to negotiate with their employers. Things like shorter work weeks or greater flexibility, maybe the 15 hour work week that has been promised for so many years now is at hand. Maybe these automaters could organise across different businesses. This could be an opportunity for them to unionise and actually reap some of the benefits of increased efficiency within these organisations. But a question arises - is this really realistic?
Kai: Yeah...no I don't think so. And also it kind of assumes that people identify as self-automaters and that this is actually a thing where people say oh you know I'm one of them I want to join their union. I think this is not an approach that would work.
Sandra: And let's remember whenever people have unionised or have started collective action it's usually been the fact that most of them experience the same kind of discrimination or experience the same kind of pains whereas these people are not within the same organisation and do not experience automation in similar ways.
Kai: And it also doesn't solve the problem, it aggravates the issue of adversarial relationship. What is needed is a rethinking of the employment relationship along the lines of making workers part of the joint effort of running the organisation and that can be done through inclusive management style, it can be done by way of creating the psychological safety and the joint purpose for everyone to work towards the same goal but fundamentally it needs a basis where everyone actually has a stake in the game like a share in the company where people understand that they are not just employed by the company in that sort of arm's length transaction of work relationship but where everyone works towards reaping the benefits of what they're doing because only then everyone has an interest in improving quality, in process efficiency, in automation, in doing away with repetitive work that might once have been someone's job. But if we can automate tasks but not fear for our own job but move on to actually creating more value and other things within the organisation then this is ironically better for the organisation than the kind of adversarial relationship that on paper benefits the shareholders but not the employees.
Sandra: And I think this is exactly the right time to bring up our second story because seemingly unrelated it harks back to this point directly. Our second story comes from The Wall Street Journal and it's titled 'Amazon's wage increase adds pressure for employers to boost pay'. So this story has been all over the news in which Amazon the second company in the world to reach a trillion dollar market cap plans to pay its workers a minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour...
Kai:...which is considerably more than the $7.25 that is mandated by law, which is not much.
Sandra: Which is not much but it's what a lot of salespeople and a lot of restaurant waiters and so on in the US are currently being paid.
Kai: So Amazon with 15 dollars goes way above that. And the question that was raised in the media is why would Amazon do this given how well known Amazon is for their focus on efficiency and low cost and so why would they actually offer above and beyond what they might have to offer in market terms. And the question is did they give in to lobbying by unions and collective action and initiatives such as by Senator Bernie Sanders to pressure Amazon into better labour conditions and higher wages. Or why did they do it?
Sandra: The way the story's been covered in most of the media outlets has been from two angles. One has been the fact that it has finally been long enough that gains from economic growth have been redistributed throughout the organisation and it was first the shareholders that benefitted and CEOs then it has trickled down through middle management and we've seen wage increases there and it's finally time for people at the lower end of the wage spectrum to reap some of those benefits and yes indeed it has taken 20 years to get there but it's finally time to redistribute some of those gains
Kai: Now am I am wrong to be skeptical and call bullshit on this feel good story?
Sandra: No I think you're probably right. The second reason that has been given for this, a slightly more likely reason, has been that in the US we've seen a continually declining unemployment rate over the last couple of years. It's now down to 3.9 percent and that is actually increasing competition finally for lower skilled workers as well. While there used to be lower competition for low skilled work and companies like Amazon could afford to find them during the festive season that is just ramping up, now it's actually becoming increasingly harder to ensure that they can hire all these people hence the increase in minimum wage and hence the need to be a leader to be the first one who does this so they can actually reap all the benefits from doing so.
Kai: And let's not forget that retailers have to ramp up their employment in warehouses and across the logistics delivery chain in the holiday season with Christmas coming up lots more people will buy presents from Amazon and so they have to really be in a position to attract many many more seasonal workers in order to be the number one retailer across the holiday season and so some commentators have pointed out that this is the actual reason for why they have now made the move to very publicly increase their minimum wage.
Sandra: Here's Jeff Bezos talking in Washington DC.
Jeff Bezos (audio): In thinking about this, trying to decide do we want to change, we realised we just made a decision. Well you can offer competitive competition or you can decide to lead. And as soon as we framed it that way, we're like let's decide to lead. And I think people will follow.
Sandra: So indeed there is something quite commendable that Amazon would make this move and increase the hourly wage and it actually does have a chance of setting a new standard for the industry. And there is a real possibility that quite a few people will follow and match these wages.
Kai: Now all credit to them if indeed this move will lead to a higher minimum wage in retail. This will spill over into other industries as workers in those industries might decide oh rather than being a restaurant waiter I might want to work in retail that could actually lead to increasing wages in those neighbouring sectors as well. So if that is indeed what they can achieve that is great, if those commentators who say that this is mostly to cover their bases for the holiday season in a largely empty labour market with low unemployment rates it remains to be seen where things are headed next year and whether this is actually a permanent move.
Sandra: But there's something interesting that very few people picked up upon which is the link to our first story because remember we talking about employees being part of sharing in the benefits of the organisation and something that seemingly slipped under the radar with this move to the fifteen dollars an hour minimum wage, and this has been reported by The Guardian, and Amazon has since confirmed it is that the company is actually getting rid of stock option awards in order to afford the minimum wage increase to the 15 dollars an hour and yes it is true this more than compensates for what the workers are losing - The Guardian says that for instance warehouse workers right now receive one Amazon share worth currently about $2000 at the end of every year, on top of another single share that they would receive once every five years but that this increase to 15 dollars an hour would give them about three thousand dollars which would more than compensate for the shares that they're losing. But they are actually losing out on the opportunity to be part of the organisation.
Kai: And this way of thinking about the share reward is indeed a purely transactional one where the share is only seen in terms of its dollar value as a remuneration rather than as a building up of a stake in the company.
Sandra: And Amazon did note that employers would much rather prefer the cash to being part of the organisation, but I think what we want to point out here is that the story is not actually that simple, that if you look in the long run in especially the possibility of automating some of the low skilled work which is very much on the cards, some of these moves might have unintended consequences a few years down the line.
Kai: And Bezos has been on the record previously saying that down the track all warehouses will be fully automated and the only reason we have humans in our warehouses is because robots are not yet good at picking certain delicate items from the shelf...
Sandra:...which incidentally clearly brings us to our 'Robot of the week' because robots are getting much better at picking delicate items.
Audio: Robot of the week.
Sandra: Our robot of the week comes from Cambridge University from their Department of Engineering.
Kai: The article is titled.... Sandra?
Sandra: The gentle robot that can suck the leaves off your lettuce. A robot that can peel lettuce and shows just how dexterous robots are becoming. And one of the PhD students who were on the team developing this robot, Luca Scimeca, points out that lettuce leaf peeling is an interesting robotics problem from an engineering perspective because the leaves are really really soft, they tear really easily and the shape of the lettuce is never a given. Hence robots have never been really good at handling these sort of tasks. Until now.
Kai: And we want to point out it's not by grabbing the lettuce but with a suction system that the leaves are delicately handled.
Sandra: We must point out that it still takes the robot about twenty seven seconds to strip one of these lettuces and it would take a human just about four seconds to do that. So we're not quite ready to roll out on the farms but a very good start to something that seemed a problem that would take a very long time to address.
Kai: Speaking of stripping robots... there was another story this week in SFGATE about a startup called Iron Ox, a California based technology startup that is into indoor farming which are employing two different kinds of robots. One is the 1000 pound robot farmer named Angus, employed to move around the hydroponic growing basins which are filled with water so for this big robot a delicate task of moving them around a warehouse without spilling the water. And Iron Ox's robotic arm which has the job to delicately pick and move the lettuce are both plucked into what the company calls 'the brain' an AI based system that is in charge of not only organising the warehouse but determining based on computer vision with the stereo cameras attached to the arm to approach each lettuce in a way that does justice to the varying physiology of the plant.
Sandra: Much like our lettuce robot that turns and rolls the lettuce around until it finds the stem and then can gently suck off the outer leaves.
Kai: So who would have thought...lettuce - the future of robotics.
Sandra: And that's all we have time for today.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
This was The Future, This Week. Made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak.
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