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'Software is the boss of Uber drivers'

Thursday, 5 November 2015 | By Denham Sadler


While much of the concern usually centres on robots taking over humans’ jobs entirely, we should also be worried about robots becoming our boss too, new research suggests.


A new paper from the Data and Society research institute at New York University explores how “workplace automation” impacts on Uber drivers, and concludes that the startup’s algorithm acts in a way that’s more controlling and at times manipulative than a human manager.


“Rather than having managers who listen to them and deliver feedback, drivers are managed through monitoring and rating systems delivered by semi-automated messaging,” the paper says.


“Uber says it’s just an app, not the drivers’ employer. Yet this claim belies the significant control Uber exerts over their behaviour through electronic management and performance metrics.”


Uber’s go-to defence when justifying its classification of drivers as contractors rather than employees is that these drivers are inspiring entrepreneurs who answer to no one but themselves.


It’s an issue that was recently raised in a lawsuit in California, where Uber’s behavioural advice for drivers was used as evidence that the company is exerting control over them, which makes them employees.


The paper says that Uber’s software exerts control over the drivers in many forms, including through performance metrics, scheduling prompts, behavioural suggestions and dynamic pricing.


Uber customers also become “middle managers” in the process by rating the drivers, the paper says.


“High performers are praised while low performers risk deactivation with no definitive recourse,” it says.


“The drivers become the sponges that absorb the blame for problems beyond their control through Uber’s rating system. Drivers try lots of strategies for getting better ratings, like offering snacks and water, or apologising for surge prices.”


The surge pricing model is also used to “manipulate” where and when drivers work, with many raising concerns over being unable to distinguish between an actual price hike and just a prediction.


The paper concludes with a strongly worded message that we need to stand up to our robot bosses.


“In a system of digitally mediated employment, workers need to be empowered to hold automated systems accountable for fairness,” it says.


“We need a better reckoning of what kinds of protections need to be in place to make remote labour management sustainable for flexible workers, Giving drivers’ a stronger voice in the machinery is a good start.”


The full academic paper can be read here.


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