In a somewhat startling move, Amazon announced this week that it will raise the minimum wage for all its U.S. employees to $15 an hour. The new wage, which goes into effect Nov. 1, will affect both full time and part-time employees (which together total over 300,000), as well as workers contracted temporarily for busy seasons. Amazon’s outpouring of generosity was the result of a long and persistent campaign led by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders to improve the working conditions for Amazon employees after numerous reports indicated they were subject to harsh treatment and earned meagre wages. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has urged other major conglomerates to follow in his footsteps and declared that his company will lobby to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. Bezos’ decision to raise wages in the U.S. certainly constitutes a step in the right direction. One must wonder, though—is it too soon to jump with excitement? What lies behind Amazon’s move and, considering its motives, is it unreasonable to assume the fight for fair treatment of its workers is far from being over?
Alarmed by articles regarding the horrid working conditions of Amazon workers across the country, including an Intercept report indicating that many Amazon employees in the U.S. can’t make ends meet and rely on Medicare and food stamps to survive, Sanders introduced what he named the “Stop Bezos Act” to the U.S. Senate. The bill was aimed at levying high taxes on companies whose employees rely on federal assistance to get by. Sanders embarked on a nationwide campaign, meeting with hundreds of Amazon employees in order to communicate their plight. Sanders was joined by several unions and media organisations, such as The Young Turks, who utilised their platforms and resources to support Sanders’ crusade. As their efforts prompted the online retailer to raise wages across the nation, Sanders took to Twitter to congratulate Bezos, stating “What Mr Bezos has done today is not only enormously important for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of employees, it could well be a shot heard around the world. I urge corporate leaders around the country to follow Mr. Bezos’ lead.” Sanders’ laudatory remarks won the attention of Bezos, who Tweeted back, “Thank you @SenSanders. We’re excited about this, and also hope others will join in.”
While it’s absolutely marvellous that everyone is excited, let us delve deeper for a moment and try to understand Bezos’ incentive for raising his American workers’ wages and the context within which he did it. Amazon, as well as Bezos specifically, were deluged with swarms of negative press criticising the appalling, and often inhumane, conditions of their workers around the world. Many, including high ranking politicians, unions, and media outlets, called out the company for paying insufficient wages to its employees while garnering unimaginably large profits. Such negative coverage could potentially threaten some of Bezos’ aspirations in the immediate future, one of which is hiring a large number of temp workers for the holiday season (a task that’s growing increasingly difficult seeing as the unemployment rate in the U.S. has dropped to under four percent and the market is tight). Another short-term goal of Bezos is establishing the company’s new headquarters in a U.S. city of his choosing and winning massive tax breaks in exchange for supplying multiple high paying jobs. Aligning himself with a progressive agenda and improving his and his company’s image comes in handy at such a critical juncture for the company.
Hours after the announcement was made, Amazon’s Senior Vice President, Dave Clark, uploaded a video to Twitter in which he is seen raised above a crowd of Amazon employees, all of whom roar and jump with ecstasy as he delivers the news to them. In his interview for The Young Turks, Sanders comments on the heartwarming excitement exhibited by the employees, which he regards as an attestation to the awesomeness of this development. There is no doubt that Bezos’ decision constitutes an improvement and an important step forward in the fight for fair treatment of workers, and that such a wage increase would be life changing for hundreds of thousands of his employees. Yet, the sight of Amazon’s SVP hovering over a crowd of workers resembles that of a lord informing his serfs he’s kindly decided to improve their conditions and reveals a key problem in the dynamics between large companies and their employees. Providing a decent living wage should not be viewed as an act of great generosity or charity or heroism, for it’s every worker’s right to lead a life of dignity. Bezos should therefore not be portrayed as a martyr for simply doing the right thing, for a change.
Let us also remember that the increase in wage announced this week does not alleviate the plight of hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers across the globe, who still work under harsh conditions for scanty wages, and who often don’t have local representatives and unions fighting on their behalf. Finally, we mustn’t forget that we cannot lean back and read such news as external spectators who have nothing to do with the issue, for we are the ones who continuously stuff the full-to-the-brim pockets of Amazon and Jeffrey Preston Bezos.
According to Amazon, we suck at handling our emotions—so they’re offering to do it for us. The company that gave us Echo and everyone’s favourite voice to come home to, Alexa, has announced it is working on a voice-activated wearable device that can detect our emotions. Based on the user’s voice, the device (unfortunately not a mood ring but you can read more about these here) can discern the emotional state the user is in and theoretically instruct the person on how to effectively respond to their feelings and also how to respond to others. As Amazon knows our shopping habits, as well as our personal and financial information, it now wants our soul too. Welcome to the new era of mood-based marketing and possibly the end of humanity as we know it.
Emotional AI and voice recognition technology has been on the rise and according to Annette Zimmermann, “By 2022, your personal device will know more about your emotional state than your own family.” Unlike marketing of the past where they captured your location, what you bought, or what you like, it’s not about what we say anymore but how we say it. The intonations of our voices, the speed we talk at, what words we emphasise and even the pauses in between those words.
Voice analysis and emotional AI are the future and Amazon plans to be a leader in wearable AI. Using the same software in Alexa, this emotion detector will use microphones and voice activation to recognise and analyse a user’s voice to identify emotions through vocal pattern analysis. Through these vocal biomarkers, it can identify base emotions such as anger, fear, and joy, to nuanced feelings like boredom, frustration, disgust, and sorrow. The secretive Lab 126, the hardware development group behind Amazon’s Fire phone, Echo speaker and Alexa, is creating this emotion detector (code name Dylan). Although it’s still in early development, Amazon has already filed a patent on it since October 2018.
This technology has been around since 2009. Companies such as CompanionMx, a clinical app that uses voice analysis to document emotional progress and suggest ways of improvement for a patient, VoiceSense who analyses customer’s investment style and employee hiring and turnover, and Affectiva, born out of the MIT media lab, that produces emotional AI for marketing firms, healthcare, gaming, automotive, and almost every other facet of modern life you can think of.
So why is Amazon getting into it now? With Amazon’s data goldmine combined with emotional AI, it has a bigger payout than Apple or Fitbit. Combining a user’s mood with their browsing and purchasing history will improve on what they recommend you, refine their target demographics, and improve how they sell you stuff.
From a business standpoint, this is quite practical. When it comes down to it, we’ll still need products. One example being health products. You won’t care so much about the bleak implications of target marketing when you’re recommended the perfect flu meds when you’re sick. Mood-based marketing makes sense as mood and emotions can affect our decision making. For instance, if you were going through a breakup you’re more apt to buy an Adele album than if you were in a relationship. But this is deeper than knowing what type of shampoo we like or the genre of movie we prefer watching. This is violating and takes control away from our purchasing power. They’re digging into how we feel—our essence and if you believe in it, into our souls.
One must ask who is coding this emotion detector? Whose emotional bias is influencing and identifying what is an appropriate emotional response? Kate Crawford from the AI Now Institute voiced her concerns in her 2018 speech at the Royal Society, emphasising how the person behind the tech is the most important person as they will be affecting how millions of people behave, as well as future generations.
For instance, if a Caucasian man was coding this tech, could they accurately identify the emotional state of a black female wearing this device? How do you detect the feeling after experiencing microaggressions if the person coding the tech has never experienced that? What about emotions that can’t be translated from language to language? Other concerns are that we won’t be able to trust ourselves on how we feel. For instance, if we ask where’s the closest ice cream shop and it asks if we’re sad, will we become sad? Can it brainwash us to feel how it wants us to feel? After decades of using GPS, we don’t know how to navigate ourselves without it. Will this dependency sever our ability to feel and how to react emotionally—in other words being human?
Taking all this information in, I’m still weirdly not mad at the idea of a mood detector. This has potential as an aid. People with social conditions such as PTSD, Autism, or Asperger’s disease can benefit, as this would aid in interaction with others or for loved ones to better understand those who are afflicted. So should we allow non-sentient machines who’ve never experienced frustration, disappointment, or heartache to tell us how to feel? Part of me says hell no, but a part of me wouldn’t mind help with handling my emotions. If we are aware of all the positive and negative implications, we can better interact with this technology and use it responsibly. If we see this as an aid and not as a guide, this could have great potential to communicate better with others and ourselves objectively. Or it can obliterate what is left of our humanity. Sorry, that was a bit heavy-handed, but can’t help it, I’m human.