Alex Moltzau 莫战

Feb 27, 2020

4 min read
Amazon Employees Protesting in 2019 (shared by permission)

A National AI Strategy for Labour

If We Think Too Narrow About Automation We Forget Wider Labour Issues

I am writing this from Norway a country where labour rights have been strong for quite some time. Workers organised in trade unions have exercised the right to collective bargaining to improve working conditions, and stated simply this has led to a better distribution of wealth as well as an increase in job safety. However the challenges contained in providing good labour or good jobs is not an easy one — often on the mind of a politician. Most national AI strategies that I have read so far mention labour in terms of the jobs replaced. I have not heard much mention of the unionisation of developers or computer scientists, as well as how these different labour groups should be defined within this context.

According to IDC’s Worldwide Software Developer and ICT-Skilled Worker Estimates, 18.5 million in 2014 (including ~7.5m hobbyists). Apparently this has grown in recent time:

“IDC estimates there were 22.30 million software developers in the world at the outset of 2018,” said Arnal Dayaratna, research director, Software Development at IDC. “IDC estimates that 11.65 million are full-time developers, 6.35 million are part-time developers, and 4.30 million are nonprofessional developers. The Asia/Pacific region accounts for 10.24 million of the world’s developers, while the EMEA and Americas regions represent 7.01 million and 5.05 million, respectively. Notably, China and India are responsible for 32.62% of the world’s total developer population.” (IDC, October 2018)

Considering that there are 7.7 billion people in the world 22 million upwards could be said to be a marginal group if we consider computer literacy. While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 14% of the world population, in 2016, remained illiterate. One should not perhaps draw an immediate line between general literacy and computer literacy, despite this it worth thinking about for a moment as developers work in a variety of areas in our society.

Two programmers working on an IBM 704 at NACA, 1954 (public rights)

How many work with tech in actuality? What is factored in when it comes to global technology workers, if we consider smartphones, wires, servers, satellites and so on? I am not aware as of now.

The modern concept of labor rights dates to the 19th century after the creation of labor unions following the industrialisation processes. Karl Marx stands out as one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for workers rights. His philosophy and economic theory focused on labor issues and advocates his economic system of socialism, a society which would be ruled by the workers.

It seems a stark contrast in the Norwegian Society where many developers are unionised to see the growing movement in the US, such as the recently formed Kickstarters United:

According to an article by the Guardian the 18th of February the union, Kickstarter United, has been recognized by management after workers voted 46 to 37 in favor of unionizing. It will be part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).

Last year workers in Amazon demanded that Jeff Bezoz act on the climate crisis.

Amazon Employees Protesting (shared by permission)

It may be about time this becomes a more studied area, and that nations plan on how they can facilitate engagement from the tech industry keeping in mind that the technology industry may include far more labour groups than directly related to software. Hardware workers in technology and along the value chain may be harder to see and easier to ignore, especially when server management often lacks transparency or immediacy in terms of labour issues.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 267. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My current focus for 100 days 200–300 is national and international strategies for artificial intelligence.

Alex Moltzau 莫战

Alex Moltzau 莫战

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.