According to my Twitter feed, a transportation expert named Reilly Brennan just explained on a panel at South by Southwest that Uber drivers are “meat-based algorithms behind the wheel”. I don’t know Brennan or his work at Stanford and he’s probably a perfectly nice meat-based speaker, but I’d say that his comment is somehow both A) The most accurate way to describe how Silicon Valley views labour in the 21st century and B) The most offensive thing said at South by Southwest in at least the past 15 minutes.
Given the context provided by people tweeting his comments, Brennan is optimistic about the future of autonomous cars, which led to his “meat based algorithm” comments. But comparing human beings to merely meat that will soon be replaced by robots is indelicate phrasing at best. And Brennan has laid bare the kind of tone-deaf jargon that leads people to hate Silicon Valley and the new push-button future that tech companies have promised.
Everyone knows that automation leads to changes in the workforce. And nobody is more excited for a future filled with autonomous vehicles than we here at Gizmodo. But the next decade is going to be a rough one for tens of thousands of people as they’re put out of work in a number of fields — especially hard when they weren’t paid much to begin with.
Brennan’s phrase, offensive or not, at least helps us understand the future we’re facing. We are all replaceable. We are all just meat-based algorithms doing jobs that Silicon Valley wants to replace with machines.
And when the machines are less expensive than those meat-socks we sometimes still call humans, you can bet there will be Silicon Valley investors, currently salivating at the thought.
In a sign of the times, Instacart (a US grocery delivery service) has just cut its pay for drivers from $US4 to $US1.50 per delivery in San Francisco. And it sliced the commission per item picked up in stores in half, from $US0.50 to $US0.25. Instacart is no doubt just waiting for the day when it can deliver meat without those pesky meat-based algorithms that go shopping for them.
In the meantime, companies like Instacart, Uber and Lyft will have to settle for slashing wages.