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 labor 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 has just cut its pay for drivers from $4 to $1.50 per delivery in San Francisco. And it sliced the commission per item picked up in stores in half, from $0.50 to $0.25. 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.
Update, 5:22pm: Reilly Brennan just sent me the email below to elaborate on his comments:
I saw your piece today and wanted to follow up. We covered a lot of ground in our discussion about the effects of autonomy and how cities will or will not change. There are a lot of things that I think are fundamentally great about autonomy and also some things that aren’t. It’s hard to model it out fully but we talked about a few scenarios and their effects.
I did say the quote about drivers today and wanted to let you know why — I was talking about how researchers can actually use parts of the ridesharing experience today to envision how autonomy might work. So instead of waiting 10, 20, 30 or however many years to think about autonomy, in some ways designers can model parts of an autonomous network today. It’s not a perfect match for what autonomy will look like. Thinking of Uber or Lyft as a prototype for an autonomous network is the idea I was putting forth. Today we have a lot to learn from the best of human drivers; in my mind the very best drivers have pretty great algorithms. Feel free to publish this comment if you like.