Things to remember when you’re talking with a robot

Today I wanted to schedule a meeting between my colleague James, and Asheesh, someone I’d just met on Twitter.

Asheesh had the awkward job of introducing a not-entirely-human personal assistant (PA) to handle the scheduling:

Notice it takes Clara 4 minutes to reply: so it feels like you are dealing with a superhuman PA, rather than a robot PA

I’m an engineer so at the mention of a non-human assistant I’m thinking weehoo! robots! how does this work? let’s have some fun!

For a second I imagined a series of clever questions I could ask this robot, so I could find out more about its insides.

This time ‘her’ reply (hmmm why is the robot secretary a ‘her’?) took long enough that the human role in this interaction became really obvious. Realising I was dealing with a human quickly put an end to my game of ‘poke the robot with a stick’.

We got the meeting booked painlessly, but still, the interaction left me feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Which is cheaper: training a robot to impersonate a human, or training a human to impersonate a robot?

We’re at a peculiar point in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Right now, AI is like a toddler that is okay on their own for 30 seconds, but really requires a lot of human supervision.

While well-funded tech companies are hiring humans to patch the gaps in AI, there’s nothing stopping a poorly-funded company to just pay a bunch of people to impersonate an AI. I wouldn’t expect most consumers to know the difference.

Now your friendly local capitalist can get all the benefits of hiring sweatshop labour, and the consumer can feel totally guilt free, because, hey it’s a robot right?

Oh, so this is present shock.

The “future of work” is coming so damn fast, you blink and you miss it.

In the hour it’s taken me to write this draft, I’ve gone from HOLY SHIT THE FUTURE IS HAPPENING to oh yeah that’s just what all the tech companies are doing.

It’s terrifying how quickly it became normalised in my mind. Suddenly I understand what Doug Rushkoff is talking about when he says everything is happening now.

So where are the unions at?

Since the Industrial Revolution, labour unions have played a critical role in balancing the power of the ultra-wealthy back in favour of the humans that do most of the work.

It’s pretty easy to freak out about how Uber and TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk and all the rest are destroying workers rights. There’s a lot to freak out about. But surely there’s a more creative response we can devise rather than just throwing rocks at the Google bus.

Coz y’know, there’s more to the history of labour unions than just fighting against greedy jerks. Unions also have an amazing track record of coming up with all kinds of life-giving innovations like national health insurance and social welfare.

So while I’m freaking out about the , now I’m wondering, what amazing benefits are we going to get from the ?

What does solidarity look like when half your colleagues are made of silicon? What are the labour unions for automated labour? (Because OMG I’m sorry for showing off but living in a country with national health insurance is freaking amazing!)

The good news is, the future of the labour struggle is subject to the same exponential rate of change as the future of work.

Taiwan’s occupy movement won and nobody noticed.

Barely a year after the folks in the Sunflower Movement occupied parliament buildings in Taiwan to protest a shitty trade-deal, some of their members hosted thousands of citizens in a massive online-offline deliberation process to develop new regulation to deal with companies like Uber.

What an amazingly generative response to a perceived threat on workers’ rights!

Regardless of the specific policy output of this process, the amazing thing is this whole new concept of citizen-initiated cross-sector mass collaboration. It reminds me of what Heather Marsh was talking about when I interviewed her a couple years ago: government as mass collaboration.

Invite the robots to join the resistance.

Back in the USA, folks like Nathan Schneider and Trebor Sholz make a pretty good argument that platform cooperativism can beat this awful new kind of hyper-precarious capitalism:

“Just for one moment imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.” — Trebor Sholz

In this context, I’m struck over and over again by the sense of privilege to be working on Loomio: a tech coop that is enabling other cooperatives to do collaborative governance efficiently.

Actually, the reason I was scheduling a meeting with Asheesh in the first place, is because he’s from Sandstorm: an amazing community building infrastructure for the cooperative digital economy to live on. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but suffice it to say they are absolutely nailing it!

It’s super exciting to know that I can just focus on making this collaborative governance platform super accessible and know that other people are figuring out how to make it super secure.

You see, it cuts both ways: the clever tech that is replacing your secretary with silicon chips can also be used in service of people. The future might be scary, but it’s totally up for grabs.

I for one welcome our new robot colleagues.

Seems rude to talk about someone behind their back, so I sent the draft of this article through to Clara for her input.

Robot-Clara is happy, honoured even!

I’m still awaiting comment from Human-Clara.

Enspiral Tales

Stories from a bold experiment - creating a collaborative network that helps people do meaningful work.

Richard D. Bartlett

Written by

I write about working together ( Loomio cofounder ( Enspiral member (

Enspiral Tales

Stories from a bold experiment - creating a collaborative network that helps people do meaningful work.

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