Six Signals: automation, labor, and defunct robots

I’m writing this post today from the sunny Bahamas, attending one of many team meetups that we have at Automattic to spend some quality IRL time with our 100% remote colleagues.

This week in Six Signals, we’re looking at the impact of automation on labor and society, semi-private social spaces, algorithmic collusion, and watching how Jibo the (now defunct) home robot tells you it’s about to die.

01: The complicated truth about automation and jobs

John Oliver’s show this week did an very nuanced job of examining the complicated futures around automation and the human workforce. He articulates how it’s neither as simple as “the robots will take our jobs” nor “new jobs will emerge and we’ll all be fine”.

50 years from now, people will be doing jobs that we can’t imagine right now, like crypto baker or snail rehydrator or investment harvester. I don’t know, the point is you can’t imagine them. So we get rid of some jobs but we get new ones, so that’s even-steven right? Well not necessarily because the new jobs automation creates won’t necessarily pay the same as the ones it takes away and it might not be easy for displaced workers to transition into them.


02: The hidden labor behind automation

New York Magazine goes deep in reaction to The Verge exposé on Facebook’s content moderation contractors, analyzing the ways in which the supposed efficiencies of computational approaches are only efficient because companies externalize the human costs behind automated services.

There aren’t that many tasks that programs can do as well as human beings, and not many programs that can be automated without the help and work of humans. Which means that any company bragging about automated solutions is likely hiding a much larger shadow workforce supporting those solutions, like the one Facebook employs through Cognizant.


“Who Pays for Silicon Valley’s Hidden Costs?” New York Magazine


03: A new competitor in urban mobility

Daimler and BMW have merged 14 different services, including DriveNow and car2go into the largest conglomerate in this space. What’s interesting about the merger is that by bringing together solutions for car-sharing, taxi hailing, parking, electric car charging, and more, they are clearly thinking beyond simple car sharing to develop a rich network of services for rethinking how people get around cities. It also creates a potential competitor to service like Uber and Lyft, which have been so dominant in this market thus far.

Daimler and BMW Invest €1 Billion in Urban Mobility Co-Venture“, Fortune


04: Semi-private social spaces

Back in 2015, Matt Boggie and I wrote about the growth of semi-private social spaces — as embodied by everything from group texts to Slack — and the increasing interest in an alternative to the more public, broadcast model of social media exemplified by Facebook and Twitter. This week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will be attempting to capitalize on that trend, with more emphasis on private and ephemeral communication. This move seems to be a reaction to the trust issue the company has been experiencing around privacy. It will be interesting to see whether Facebook can succeed in building interactions that are “privacy first”, and if so, how they will reconcile that with their advertising model.


05: Algorithms colluding to fix prices

An obvious question is, who — if anyone — should be prosecuted for price fixing when the bots work out how to do it without being told to do so, and without communicating with each other? In the US, where the Federal Trade Commission has been pondering the prospect, the answer seems to be no one, because only explicit collusive agreements are illegal. The bots would only be abetting a crime if they started scheming together. Tacit collusion, apparently, would be fine.

Expect mischief as algorithms proliferate“, The Financial Times


06: How the robots die