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“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL’s cold, if polite, refusal to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a defining warning about putting too much trust in artificial intelligence, particularly if you work in space.
In the movies, when a machine decides to be the boss (or humans let it) things go wrong. Yet despite myriad dystopian warnings, control by machines is fast becoming our reality.
Algorithms—sets of instructions to solve a problem or complete a task—now drive everything from browser search results to better medical care.
They are helping design buildings. They are speeding up trading on financial markets, making and losing fortunes in micro-seconds. They are calculating the most efficient routes for delivery drivers.
In the workplace, self-learning algorithmic computer systems are being introduced by companies to assist in areas such as hiring, setting tasks, measuring productivity, evaluating performance, and even terminating employment: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid you are being made redundant.”
Giving self‐learning algorithms the responsibility to make and execute decisions affecting workers is called “algorithmic management.” It carries a host of risks in depersonalizing management systems and entrenching pre-existing biases.
At an even deeper level, perhaps, algorithmic management entrenches a power imbalance between management and worker. Algorithms are closely guarded secrets. Their decision-making processes are hidden. It’s a black-box: perhaps you have some understanding of the data that went in, and you see the result that comes out, but you have no idea of what goes on in between.
Algorithms at Work
Here are a few examples of algorithms already at work.
At Amazon’s fulfillment center in south-east Melbourne, they set the pace for “pickers,” who have timers on their scanners showing how long they have to find the next item. As soon as they scan that item, the timer resets for the next. All at a “not quite walking, not quite running” speed.
Or how about AI determining your success in a job interview? More than 700 companies have trialed such technology. US developer HireVue says its software speeds up the hiring process by 90 percent by having applicants answer identical questions and then scoring them according to language, tone, and facial expressions.
Granted, human assessments during job interviews are notoriously flawed. Algorithms,however, can also be biased. The classic example is the COMPAS software used by US judges, probation, and parole officers to rate a person’s risk of re-offending. In 2016 a ProPublica investigation showed the algorithm was heavily discriminatory, incorrectly classifying black subjects as higher risk 45 percent of the time, compared with 23 percent for white subjects.
How Gig Workers Cope
Algorithms do what their code tells them to do. The problem is this code is rarely available. This makes them difficult to scrutinize, or even understand.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the gig economy. Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, and other platforms could not exist without algorithms allocating, monitoring, evaluating, and rewarding work.
Over the past year Uber Eats’ bicycle couriers and drivers, for instance, have blamed unexplained changes to the algorithm for slashing their jobs, and incomes.
Rider’s can’t be 100 percent sure it was all down to the algorithm. But that’s part of the problem. The fact those who depend on the algorithm don’t know one way or the other has a powerful influence on them.
This is a key result from our interviews with 58 food-delivery couriers. Most knew their jobs were allocated by an algorithm (via an app). They knew the app collected data. What they didn’t know was how data was used to award them work.
In response, they developed a range of strategies (or guessed how) to “win” more jobs, such as accepting gigs as quickly as possible and waiting in “magic” locations. Ironically, these attempts to please the algorithm often meant losing the very flexibility that was one of the attractions of gig work.
The information asymmetry created by algorithmic management has two profound effects. First, it threatens to entrench systemic biases, the type of discrimination hidden within the COMPAS algorithm for years. Second, it compounds the power imbalance between management and worker.
Our data also confirmed others’ findings that it is almost impossible to complain about the decisions of the algorithm. Workers often do not know the exact basis of those decisions, and there’s no one to complain to anyway. When Uber Eats bicycle couriers asked for reasons about their plummeting income, for example, responses from the company advised them “we have no manual control over how many deliveries you receive.”
When algorithmic management operates as a “black box” one of the consequences is that it is can become an indirect control mechanism. Thus far under-appreciated by Australian regulators, this control mechanism has enabled platforms to mobilize a reliable and scalable workforce while avoiding employer responsibilities.
“The absence of concrete evidence about how the algorithms operate”, the Victorian government’s inquiry into the “on-demand” workforce notes in its report, “makes it hard for a driver or rider to complain if they feel disadvantaged by one.”
The report, published in June, also found it is “hard to confirm if concern over algorithm transparency is real.”
But it is precisely the fact it is hard to confirm that’s the problem. How can we start to even identify, let alone resolve, issues like algorithmic management?
Fair conduct standards to ensure transparency and accountability are a start. One example is the Fair Work initiative, led by the Oxford Internet Institute. The initiative is bringing together researchers with platforms, workers, unions, and regulators to develop global principles for work in the platform economy. This includes “fair management,” which focuses on how transparent the results and outcomes of algorithms are for workers.
Understandings about impact of algorithms on all forms of work is still in its infancy. It demands greater scrutiny and research. Without human oversight based on agreed principles we risk inviting HAL into our workplaces.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.
A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.
What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!
With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.
You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.
For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.
This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.
But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.
The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.
They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.
Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.
Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.
Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.
Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.
Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.
In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.
The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.
It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.
Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.
Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.
Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.
Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.
A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.
Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.
Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.
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