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When Your Boss Is an ­ber Algorithm


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Drivers contracted by Uber or Lyft typically interact with an automated management system mainly accessed by a mobile app.

Researchers at the non-profit Data & Society suggest regulators should consider how Uber and Lyft's automated management systems have changed the dynamics between workers and their bosses.

Credit: Patrick Kyle

Uber and Lyft's automated management systems establish new dynamics between workers and their bosses that should garner regulatory attention, according to researchers with the nonprofit Data & Society.

Drivers contracted by Uber or Lyft are typically required to meet a human when they first sign up, and afterwards they interact with an automated management system mainly accessed by a mobile app. When a driver is logged in, the app allocates pickup requests from people nearby, and the system assigns feedback by tracking the proportion of pickups a driver accepts and averaging the rating passengers give their driver following a ride. Drivers can be penalized for not accepting enough rides or for low ratings. Moreover, they have an incentive to work at particular times, or in particular places, by surge pricing that provisionally elevates fares.

"Uber says it wants to act as a neutral intermediary that connects supply and demand with an automated mechanism for finding the right price," notes Data & Society researcher Alex Rosenblat. "It's difficult to argue that you're a neutral platform if you're actively trying to manage supply and demand."

Rosenblat says regulators should consider whether the way such automated management systems can manipulate employees' behavior could exceed ethical boundaries.

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