1.5 The pitfalls of the Augmented Worker
The picture painted so far is resolutely optimistic: Women and Men, as they have done for hundreds of years, will continue to push their capabilities even further, helped by technology. Humans and robots will work together to produce better and more efficiently. Certainly some jobs will disappear but new ones, less painful and less dangerous, will be created in their turn. This is true, but it is only part of the reality and current examples of Augmented Worker remind us that the system can get out of control.
THE COUNTER-EXAMPLE OF VOICE PICKING
Voice picking is a method used in logistics warehouses to increase the productivity of the order picking process. Operators are equipped with an audio terminal, with headphones and a microphone. This terminal indicates directly to the operator the tasks to be carried out by giving him audio orders. It tells the operator the area of the warehouse where to collect the required items, the quantity of items to be selected and where to place them for packing.
The terminal completely controls the employee’s activity. The employee can communicate with the machine using voice commands. A specific lexicon, consisting of just a handful of words, allows the operator to respond to the terminal. He confirms whether or not the picking and depositing of the items in the order has been completed, and warns him of potential stock errors. The operational advantages are obvious: increased order picking speed, reduced operator training time and fewer picking errors.
However, this technique used in particular in some Amazon and Lidl warehouses is controversial. Employees equipped in this way can experience real suffering at work. They lose, for example, the freedom to talk to their colleagues because every sentence spoken is analysed by the terminal for a voice command and generates a response from the machine indicating that it did not understand. The work pace is determined by the machine, which has estimated the travel time needed to assemble the command. Employees equipped with this device become the effectors of a computer program and lose all freedom of action or initiative.
On the other hand, the increased pace of work significantly increases the fatigue of the preparers as well as the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and even psycho-social risks (PSR) in the long term.
THE LIMITS OF HOME DELIVERY PLATFORMS
Delivery platforms such as UberEats, Deliveroo… offer the delivery of meals prepared by partner restaurants to the platform’s customers. The deliverymen carry out the shopping mainly by bicycle or scooter. They are paid according to the number of trips made and the distance between them. They are self-employed, subject to an obligation to follow the itinerary defined by the platform, which is intended to be optimised. The delivery drivers connected to the application receive proposals of races to be carried out, which they can accept or refuse thanks to their connected phone.
This system has many benefits. In particular, it increases the turnover of partner restaurants by an average of 20% and delivers a quality customer experience. The service is fast, convenient, predictable and economical. In addition, this service offers many employment opportunities.
On the other hand, the price to pay is substantial. The motivation systems of the delivery drivers encourage them to run as many errands as possible as quickly as possible, to work at night even when weather conditions make driving dangerous. The result is an accident rate 10 times higher than the French average. As in the previous example, an uncontrolled increase in the work rhythm increases the risk of accidents and musculoskeletal disorders.
It is unlikely that companies will stop looking for new ways to increase the productivity of their employees. It is also unlikely that technological progress will slow down in the coming decades. So we will most likely see an acceleration in the number of areas that are currently reserved for humans, where industries will use technology to further increase productivity.