AI, Drones, Empathy, Alienation, and the Gig Economy

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The Verge has an important post on content moderation in the corporate hellhole that is Facebook which has implications both for the future of work (or, as we call it, “labor”) and for services that we, as consumers (reproducing our labor power) file mentally as algorithmic or robotic, but are in fact labor, performed remotely. However, I’m going to approach the Verge article indirectly, by looking at drones and drone operators — an earlier, prototype gig economy, if you think of enlistment as a gig — and the stresses that result from whacking faraway brown people remotely. Then I’ll look at Facebook, and then at other forms of remote labor (or, as it seems to be called, “telepresence”).

Working Conditions of Military Drone Operators

From the New York Times, “As Stress Drives Off Drone Operators, Air Force Must Cut Flights

What had seemed to be a benefit of the job, the novel way that the crews could fly Predator and Reaper drones via satellite links while living safely in the United States with their families, has created new types of stresses as they constantly shift back and forth between war and family activities and become, in effect, perpetually deployed.

“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman,” Colonel Cluff said.

That’s the quote from the Colonel. The Independent has a different version, in “Secret US drone whistleblowers say operators ‘stressed and often abuse drugs and alcohol’ in rare insight into programme

From as far as 8,000 miles away in their base in the Nevada desert, the men operated unmanned drones carrying Hellfire missiles, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

…. [The operators] said they were encouraged to dehumanise their targets and even referred to the children they monitored with their drones as “tits”, or “terrorists in training”, or “fun-sized terrorists”. The four said they had struggled with depression and even suicidal thoughts since quitting.

The operators said they were supposed to combine signals intelligence, imagery and human intelligence. Often they lacked one or more of these and yet they still proceeded with the kill missions.

“The programme hemorrhages people. We don’t like it. It’s not a good job.”

And in a follow-up story in the Times, “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior“:

According to another recent study conducted by the Air Force, drone analysts in the “kill chain” are exposed to more graphic violence — seeing “destroyed homes and villages,” witnessing “dead bodies or human remains” — than most Special Forces on the ground…. Unlike conventional soldiers, they aren’t bolstered by the group solidarity forged in combat zones. … What happens when the risks are entirely one-sided? Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to Colin Powell, fears that remote warfare erodes “the warrior ethic,” which holds that combatants must assume some measure of reciprocal risk. “If you give the warrior, on one side or the other, complete immunity, and let him go on killing, he’s a murderer,” he said. “Because you’re killing people not only that you’re not necessarily sure are trying to kill you — you’re killing them with absolute impunity.”

So, being a drone operator is “a bad job”[1] because:

  1. The nature of the gig mixes work time and private time (“driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart”) or rather, converts all time into work time;
  2. The gig makes demands while not providing the tools to meet them (“Often they lacked one or more of these”)
  3. The gig lacks cameraderie (“they aren’t bolstered by the group solidarity forged in combat zones”)
  4. The gig makes enormous demands on empathy while not allowing the operator to offer help (“exposed to more graphic violence… than most Special Forces on the ground”)
  5. The gig is morally problematic (“If you give the warrior… complete immunity… he’s a murderer”).

Obviously, being a military drone operator is a limit case for “remote control” gigs, but are these characteristics really true for other gigs, like content moderation? I think they are.

Working Conditions of Facebook Moderators

Now let’s look at the Verge article (which I recomend you read in full). We’ll go through the working conditions for content moderators at Facebook as described by the whistleblowers, and see which of the above characteristics, as they emerged from describing the work of military drone operators, apply:

1. The nature of the gig mixes work time and private time.

Marcus was made to moderate Facebook content — an additional responsibility he says he was not prepared for. A military veteran, he had become desensitized to seeing violence against people, he told me. But on his second day of moderation duty, he had to watch a video of a man slaughtering puppies with a baseball bat. Marcus went home on his lunch break, held his dog in his arms, and cried.

2. The gig makes demands while not providing the tools to meet them

“The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly,” one of [Keith] Utley’s managers told me. “I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired.”

On the night of March 9th, 2018, Utley slumped over at his desk. Co-workers noticed that he was in distress when he began sliding out of his chair. Two of them began to perform CPR, but no defibrillator was available in the building. A manager called for an ambulance. Utley was pronounced dead a short while later at the hospital, the victim of a heart attack… [T]he moderators who work in these offices are not children, and they know when they are being condescended to. They see the company roll an oversized Connect 4 game into the office, as it did in Tampa this spring, and they wonder: When is this place going to get a defibrillator?

3. The gig lacks cameraderie

[E]mployees I spoke with believed his tenure exemplified Cognizant’s approach to hiring moderators: find bodies wherever you can, ask as few questions as possible, and get them into a seat on the production floor where they can start working.

The result is a raucous workplace where managers send regular emails to the staff complaining about their behavior on the site. Nearly every person I interviewed independently compared the Tampa office to a high school. Loud altercations, often over workplace romances, regularly take place between co-workers. Verbal and physical fights break out on a monthly basis, employees told me.

4. The gig makes enormous demands on empathy while not allowing the operator to offer help

Early on, Speagle came across a video of two women in North Carolina encouraging toddlers to smoke marijuana, and helped to notify the authorities. (Moderator tools have a mechanism for escalating issues to law enforcement, and the women were eventually convicted of misdemeanor child abuse.) To Speagle’s knowledge, though, the crimes he saw every day never resulted in legal action being taken against the perpetrators. The work came to feel pointless, never more so than when he had to watch footage of a murder or child pornography case that he had already removed from Facebook.

5. The gig is morally problematic

“I really wanted to make a difference,” Speagle told me of his time working for Facebook. “I thought this would be the ultimate difference-making thing. Because it’s Facebook. But there’s no difference being made.”

I asked him what he thought needed to change. “I think Facebook needs to shut down,” he said.

Working Conditions for Remote Operators Generally

We are told that remote labor (“telepresence”) is the future for many jobs. Kara Swisher and Rani Molla of Recode/Decode has a very interesting interview with Louis Hyman, author of Temp[2]. From the transcript:

[LOUIS HYMAN] And I think part of this acceleration I wrote about in the book is this idea of digital migrants. So sometime in the next few years, we will see robots that are tele-operated by somebody else, and I think people aren’t as attentive to this as they need to be. …. I went to a lab a couple of years ago at Berkeley, and you could put on virtual goggles. Like we all now have these — well, I guess six people have the Oculus Rift or whatever. And you can run a robot body through that. And people there were very excited about this towel-folding robot that could see a towel and fold it. And I sat there for an hour waiting for this towel to be folded and it never could. I hate folding so I was super excited to see this. And I put the goggles on and I could fold the towel almost instantaneously… I could reach the robot’s arms and fold the towel. And I realized when I did this it was like, oh wow, I could do this anywhere. And so I can easily imagine the next couple years, some entrepreneur offering very cheap house-space robots the same way that Tesla used its own drivers to train its Autopilot, to use just hundreds of thousands of people around the world through some kind of online labor program in putting on virtual reality goggles somewhere in Bangladesh or Mexico. And then operating these robots.

And then because of machine learning, the robots would learn how to do all kinds of manual tasks….

RM: Right, so everything that can be digitized, will be digitized. A lot of things will be automated.

And it will be digitized by cheap people.

RM: By cheap people.

This is the important part.

Which, of course, Facebook being Facebook, it intends to do. Verge once more:

If you believe moderation is a high-skilled, high-stakes job that presents unique psychological risks to your workforce, you might hire all of those workers as full-time employees. But if you believe that it is a low-skill job that will someday be done primarily by algorithms, you probably would not.

Instead, you would do what Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter have done, and hire companies like Accenture, Genpact, and Cognizant to do the work for you. Leave to them the messy work of finding and training human beings, and of laying them all off when the contract ends. Ask the vendors to hit some just-out-of-reach metric, and let them figure out how to get there.

(Not to mention Amazon warehouse workers.)s

Now let’s look at a few of these futuristic remote labor gigs. Of the five characteristics, listed:

  1. The gig mixes work time and private time
  2. The gig makes demands while not providing the tools to meet them
  3. The gig lacks cameraderie
  4. The gig makes enormous demands on empathy while not allowing the operator to offer help
  5. The gig is morally problematic

I would say that #1 and #2 are “normal” in the sense that most gigs head toward this baseline anyhow, kaching. #3 is, I think, inherent in remote labor; either you’re working alone or in a warehouse, and in any case you’re under a headset or staring into a screen. I think #5 will most often be a function of #4. So let’s look at potential demands on empathy. (It’s worth noting that in the literature on telepresence I’ve read, the developers focus on latency — that is, the response time necessarily created by remote operation. They don’t give any thought to the operators at all.

The first example: Remote pilots of commercial aircraft. CNBC:

Over the last few weeks, analysts at Jefferies have quizzed plane-buying executives at airlines and leasing companies on what they would want from any new Boeing offering.

The researchers said that given the [new offering] could start from a completely fresh design, airline executives see scope for just one pilot to be physically sat in the plane.

A second pilot would be ground based and be able to “monitor several aircraft” at the same time.

Reducing the number of pilots from an airline’s payroll could save a company millions of dollars in salaries and training costs.

Great. Would the remote pilot, for example, have had to follow Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 all the way down to the ground? I’m guessing yes; one of the stressors for military drone operators is not being able to look away. Has consideration been given to the demands for empathy placed on the remote pilot?

The second example: Emergency medical drones. My Drone Authority:

In some emergency situations, only a few minutes may make the difference between whether someone lives or dies. Delivery drones can bring first aid supplies, needed medicines, blood, and medical equipment. For example, those suffering from a heart attack might get help from an emergency drone. This drone maintains communication contact with paramedics and can deliver a portable defibrillator. A defibrillator is a device that uses a strong electric pulse to restart the heart. The paramedics are able to observe through remote video what is happening and instruct the people giving aid to the heart-attack victim on how to use the defibrillator.

Great. Will the remote paramedics be required to view a heart attack where the treatment is going wrong?

The third example: Remote drivers for robot cars. From Wired:

Livingston is sitting comfortably in his office in Portland, Oregon, when he appears on the screens inside the car and announces he’ll be our teleoperator this afternoon. A moment later, the MKZ pulls into traffic, responding not to the man in the driver’s seat, but to Livingston, who’s sitting in front of a bank of screens displaying feeds from the four cameras on the car’s roof, working the kind of steering wheel and pedals serious players use for games like Forza Motorsport. Livingston is a software engineer for Designated Driver, a new company that’s getting into teleoperations, the official name for remotely controlling self-driving vehicles.

Total creepiness aside, Will Livingston be prepared for what happens in case of a car crash, and will he have to monitor the screens — heightening things a little, here — while the bodies are pulled from the flaming vehicle?

In case case, the behavior of Facebook toward its moderators — as well as the general incentives to treat those who will be replaced by AIs as disposable — would that in all three cases, remote operators will be seeing events they will not be able to look away from, and which they will remember for the rest of their lives. In a bad way.


If gig workers training the artificial intelligences that will replace them at their horrible jobs would lead to Fully Automated Luxury Communism, I might consider the sacrifice of their empathetic faculties worth it (especially if they were told, truthfully, that was the goal, instead of being treated as disposible and fungible…. lumps of labor). Somehow, however, I don’t think that’s going to be the case.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Social policy, Social values, The destruction of the middle class on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Summer

    It would seem the job for algorithms is coding.
    Jobs that require empathetic interaction with people and some kind of morality going to algorithms …it’s just an avoidance of accountability.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > It would seem the job for algorithms is coding.

      Machine learning isn’t necessarily coding. That said, “avoidance of accountability” is a feature, not a bug.

      1. skippy

        Somewhere between THX 1138 –

        and …

        With THX numerological scientism [see mainstream econ] – as code – dictates policy from a efficiency metric not unlike “the nail shack” where as the latter is more about organic debate about whom controls the narrative and how that washes with the unwashed seeking perspective out side environmental – group biases.

        I prefer white washing of responsibility …. see THX.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Funny that you mention Israel Folau’s comments as I was quite offended by that. Everybody has go their knickers in a twist in his attack on Homosexuals but what about all those others on that list – the Drunks, the Adulterers, the Liars, the Fornicators, the Thieves, the Atheists, the Idolaters – what about us?
          Good movie THX 1138 that. If I remember right, the android cops acted more human than the humans themselves.

          1. Carey

            Still looking for a clear, present-day definition of “hate speech”.
            The term seems to be working out well for our corporate Masters..

            Sound like I need to see this THX 1138 movie, too.

          2. skippy

            I agree with your salient point about ‘others’ that seems to be lost in the narrow blinkered view this episode has wrought and the means by which its established. For instance I have no drama with Foaul’s rights to believe in some faith based construct as long as he accepts its application is with in his own personal life choices, demanding others to sort themselves by some questionable authority he promotes is not on.

          3. ambrit

            And the television ‘announcers,’ were all artificial people, holograms. Very fitting.

    1. ChiGal in Carolina

      And I apologise for the belated addition to the convo but on the PBS series Independent Lens there is a film called The Cleaners that aired in 2018 and profiles the real trauma of Facebook moderators forced to process human ugliness for hours on end unsupported. I think they are in the Philippines but I may misremember.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    I can’t help but be distracted from the argument by the horrific situations that underlie these work conditions. Is there much worth salvaging–in terms of values and institutions–in our society where people commute politely to a job where they murder people or where people post videos of butchering puppies? It seems like it’s time to start from scratch.

  3. clarky90

    Re; “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”

    Charles Koch and George Soros team up with Patreon, Mozilla, Pinterest and more to stamp out “hate” online

    “…..These actors will team up in July, during the After Charlottesville Project conference in San Francisco, that will see discussions on “solutions for curbing political terrorism,”

    … the gathering will seek to identify “best practices to fight hate and extremism online.”

    The San Francisco event is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal, the Kresge Foundation and the Soros Fund Charitable Foundation.”

    “Google buries Dr Mercola in their latest search engine update”

    I have learned so much about health from Dr Mercola over many years. Every week he has hour long interviews with doctors and scientists with alternative POVs. I will be seventy next year and am still pharma-free. (Thanks Dr M)

    I am happy if people don’t agree with me. I have changed my ideas very much as I have gotten older, and discussed/argued with others. But to shut any POV down is Totalitarian (with a capital “T”). A thought or expression, that is not “Party Line”, is now “Hate Speech”….and must be i-exterminated. Bad news

      1. Carey

        I’d always assumed Googie Chrome was primarily spyware, and I’m not the brightest light.

    1. ambrit

      Blast! I like Dr. Mercola too. I don’t agree with him all the time, but he does stimulate new thinking, and or better understandings of older paradigms.
      If poor old Dr. Mercola is getting the ax, can Joe Rogan be far behind?

  4. EricNuggets

    the second season of Aussie production (via Netflix) “Secret City” features drone pilot gone mad or acting on misplaced empathy. Thanks LS for this dystopian present to be aware of when looking for gig work.

  5. Joe Well

    Would we have found out if there were any incidents of fragging by drone? Like a drone operator locating the nearest base and taking out the officers?

    I’m going to assume that other kinds of misconduct would be hushed up.

    1. Joe Well

      For that matter, I’m amazed that “hostile forces” haven’t found a way to do that yet.

    2. ambrit

      One of William Faulkner’s early stories is based on that premise, set in World War One. (Faulkner signed up for the Royal Air Force to fight in WW-1 but never made it past training in Toronto.)

        1. ambrit

          I accept the chastiseal correction but direct your attention to the fact that refers to the institution as the Royal Air Force as well. Several headings in the google search page refer to the institution as the RAF also.
          We may appreciate the proper naming of things as an intellectual virtue, but it seems that the present generation of “scholars” does not.
          The Lesson: We live in degenerate times.
 and Faulkner:

  6. Craig H.

    I believe the only thing that will slow down drone wars is the young men flying them coming down with epidemic PTSD. It is a small minority of men who do not have a conscience and can just blow away another human and not suffer consequences. If we want to do empire properly we really need to bring back the circus and desensitize masses to the horror of killing.

    Googling around I found one female drone USAF pilot. She is flying in the unarmed sector.

    1. skippy

      I remember my days on the DMZ where we were informed that kids in N. Korea used yank targets for practice.

      1. ambrit

        Boy, how times have changed. Now kids stationed on the Gaza DMZ use real Palestinians as targets.

        1. skippy

          Since antiquity kids have always been highly valued catalyst’s of change, malleable, emotive to the cause in life or death, swell the ranks or diminish the protagonists longevity.

          I played my part in the theater of the day.

          1. ambrit

            The Children’s Crusade. A Theater of the Absurd.
            The quip “Older but wiser” makes me question the definition of wisdom.

  7. RBHoughton

    Snowden made the point to some drone operators in Hawaii that after WWII the Nuremberg trials reached down to quite lowly operatives in the Third Reich. Employment with the Nazi government was potentially a death sentence at Nuremberg. No wonder drone operators fear their job is something more than a computer game. There should be consequences.

    Today, America has repudiated the morality it expressed so vividly at Nuremberg. The International Criminal Court that was founded on the Nuremberg principles is repudiated by Washington DC, its representatives barred from the country. American people are immune to its jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also dead in the water – its universal everywhere except in these United States.

    When Britain and France were dismantling the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan pursued a highly moral course of action and the memory of that is still brilliantly alive in Turkey and elsewhere. Now America is declining, its government response is different, as though there is a way of reversing the direction and returning to the vibrancy of the last century. Perhaps that’s what those films about super-heroes are all about – living the American dream.

    1. Harrold

      Only around 200 defendants were tried at Nuremberg, all of them major war criminals per the London Charter of 1945.

  8. James

    Cue the engineers championing digital nomadism and lambasting the inefficiency of commuting. The social has already been adequately simulated online. What further distraction do these marginally productive people need?! /s

    Humanity is merely the cost of doing business . . . for now.

  9. Devamitta

    It all puts us in our separate silos, existing as individuals, aliened from our work and from each other. As a youth in my what was an industrial city, I recall the factory bowling leagues teaming with activity, the church full of people, 3 Masses on Sunday, one on Saturday evening, the clubs that people belonged to, the ethnic centers, the neighborhood I grew up in having three Italian clubs and two Polish ones, the greater area having a German and Irish club, all teaming with people an activities. The meetings at the union halls were not the ghost towns they now are. The neighborhoods had voting booths at the end of the streets, manned by people we knew. We saw neighbors we knew come to vote. Then, I could name dozens of families on streets to the north and south of my house. I am an atheist now, so I mention the church only as an example of places where people built community. I barely know a handful of neighbors in my present town.

    What is missing nowadays, and I hope I am not waxing nostalgic, is the sense of solidarity. The sense that we were all in this together. The failure of our present day connections to have lost that focus is a detriment to real democracy and ultimately serves the interests of the powerful. Thus we are connected as never before through technology but never so isolates in our silos, divorced from human solidarity that allows one to kiss the wife or husband and kids, and to go to work to remotely destroy human life by drones land thousands of miles away, the cult of individuality leading to a deep moral failure, No wonder out soldiers, more expertly schooled in the art of killing, come home in to a world they know they have no place in, many carrying lifelong despair, and many ending their lives or living on the street. We are a sick society and will stay that way unless we are able to break free of the false narratives foisted on us by a capitalistic system the break the bonds of solidarity that carry values more worthwhile than the shallow ones that commodify everything for profit rather than so the deeper values of that tie us to one another and to our material world.

  10. Scott1

    Sounds like the gig society of computer gamers transferring
    their youth’s skills to paying work is a miserable dystopia.
    I admire the Brits for their hobbies since so often the working
    man has a miserable work life and their hobbies are their real
    I suspect that Dystopia costs more than Utopia.

    “The Irish don’t like routine.” The Great Hunger, Old Town Press
    What was said by the English with power and the landlords
    who let the Irish starve, starved them.

    The truth is that there are just a lot of jobs, more than a few
    that no man or woman is meant to do on a 40 hour a week
    schedule for 20 years. However the job is killing people, is
    not a sustainable job.

    We are not using the right systems when we create
    the disabled.

    “Work is the spiritual struggle for the material
    necessities.” RSD

  11. Synoia

    Are the US Government’s actions in its foreign wars distinguishable from those prosecuted at Nuremberg?

    Actions, not expressed motives. Motives are irrelevant.

    Could the actions, especially the classified ones, be ascribed to a conspiracy?

  12. Olivier

    “Will the remote paramedics be required to view a heart attack where the treatment is going wrong?”

    But they already do! They are not always successful.

  13. Paul Whittaker

    As a Canadian I object to the negative political add at the start of this article. We have months to go until the election, and yes the con’s have the most money, yet apparently have no positive message about their own party, no policies etc just the other guy is corrupt. Both parties being controld by the corporate elite.

Comments are closed.