Comment: Algorithms are horrible bosses, but they take over the office

Machine learning algorithms, on the other hand, learn to make decisions on their own after being exposed to a lot of training data. This means that they become more complex as they develop, making their operations opaque even to programmers.

When the reasoning behind a decision like firing an employee is not transparent, a morally dubious arrangement is brewing. Was the algorithm’s decision to fire the employee biased, corrupt or arbitrary?

If so, its production would be considered morally illegitimate, or even illegal in most cases. But how would an employee demonstrate that his dismissal was the result of illicit motives?

Algorithm management exacerbates the power imbalance between employers and employees by shielding abuse of power from redress. And the algorithms cut off an essential human function from the working relationship.

This is what the late philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called our “natural sense of pity” and our “innate reluctance to see our neighbor suffer”.

Even if not all human managers are compassionate, there is no way algorithm managers are. In our case study of Amazon Flex couriers, we observed the exasperation platform workers feel over the algorithm’s inability to accept human calls.

Algorithms designed to maximize efficiency are indifferent to childcare emergencies. They have zero tolerance for slow moving workers because they are still learning the job. They do not negotiate to find a solution that helps a worker with an illness or disability.

Sharon D. Cole