Uber and Lyft Can’t Find Drivers Because Gig Work Sucks

You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a “labor shortage” largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives. Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.

While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft. For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers’ names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”

“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least 10,000 pounds in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me 200 pounds,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard. “I don’t understand how they can take 60,000 pounds from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”

“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”

“I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too,” Yona’s sister, Destiny, told Motherboard. “She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I’m doing none of them.”

Motherboard argues that the degrading working conditions, as well as the poor pay, “are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.”

TikTok Lawsuit Highlights How AI Is Screwing Over Voice Actors

With only 30 minutes of audio, companies can now create a digital clone of your voice and make it say words you never said. Using machine learning, voice AI companies like VocaliD can create synthetic voices from a person’s recorded speech — adopting unique qualities like speaking rhythm, pronunciation of consonants and vowels, and intonation. For tech companies, the ability to generate any sentence with a realistic-sounding human voice is an exciting, cost-saving frontier. But for the voice actors whose recordings form the foundation of text-to-speech (TTS) voices, this technology threatens to disrupt their livelihoods, raising questions about fair compensation and human agency in the age of AI.

At the center of this reckoning is voice actress Bev Standing, who is suing TikTok after alleging the company used her voice for its text-to-speech feature without compensation or consent. This is not the first case like this; voice actress Susan Bennett discovered that audio she recorded for another company was repurposed to be the voice of Siri after Apple launched the feature in 2011. She was paid for the initial recording session but not for being Siri. Rallying behind Standing, voice actors donated to a GoFundMe that has raised nearly $7,000 towards her legal expenses and posted TikTok videos under the #StandingWithBev hashtag warning users about the feature. Standing’s supporters say the TikTok lawsuit is not just about Standing’s voice — it’s about the future of an entire industry attempting to adapt to new advancements in the field of machine learning.

Standing’s case materializes some performers’ worst fears about the control this technology gives companies over their voices. Her lawsuit claims TikTok did not pay or notify her to use her likeness for its text-to-speech feature, and that some videos using it voiced “foul and offensive language” causing “irreparable harm” to her reputation. Brands advertising on TikTok also had the text-to-speech voice at their disposal, meaning her voice could be used for explicitly commercial purposes. […] Laws protecting individuals from unauthorized clones of their voices are also in their infancy. Standing’s lawsuit invokes her right of publicity, which grants individuals the right to control commercial uses of their likeness, including their voice. In November 2020, New York became the first state to apply this right to digital replicas after years of advocacy from SAG-AFTRA, a performers’ union.
“We look to make sure that state rights of publicity are as strong as they can be, that any limitations on people being able to protect their image and voice are very narrowly drawn on first amendment lines,” Jeffrey Bennett, a general counsel for SAG-AFTRA, told Motherboard. “We look at this as a potentially great right of publicity case for this voice professional whose voice is being used in a commercial manner without her consent.”

Applying For Your Next Job May Be an Automated Nightmare

If you think looking for a job is already daunting, anxiety-riddled, and unpleasant, just wait until the algorithms take over the hiring process. When they do, a newfangled ‘digital recruiter’ like VCV, which just received $1.7 million in early investment, hopes it will look something like this: First, a search bot will be used to scan CVs by the thousands, yours presumably among them. If it’s picked out of the haystack, you will be contacted by a chatbot. Over SMS, the bot will set an appointment for a phone interview, which will be conducted by an automated system enabled by voice recognition AI. Next, the system will ask you, the applicant, to record video responses to a set of predetermined interview questions. Finally, the program can use facial recognition and predictive analytics to complete the screening, algorithmically determining whether the nervousness, mood, and behavior patterns you exhibit make you a fit for the company. If you pass all that, then you will be recommended for an in-person job interview.

[…] VCV, which did not respond to a request for comment, is far from alone here. A growing suite of startups is pitching AI-driven recruitment services, promising to save corporations millions of dollars throughout the hiring process by reducing overhead, to pluck more ideal candidates out of obscurity, and to reduce bias in the hiring process. Most offer little to no evidence of how they actually do so. VCV’s much-larger competitor, HireVue, which has raked in a staggering $93 million in funding and is backed by top-tier Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Sequoia, is hocking many of the same services. It counts 700 companies as its clients, including, it says, Urban Outfitters, Intel, Honeywell, and Unilever. AllyO, which was founded in 2015, and “utilizes deep workflow conversational AI to fully automate end to end recruiting workflow” has $19 million in backing.

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret: Using a shadow workforce of contract employees to drive profits

As the gig economy grows, the ratio of contract workers to regular employees in corporate America is shifting. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and other Silicon Valley tech titans now employ thousands of contract workers to do a host of functions — anything from sales and writing code to managing teams and testing products. This year at Google, contract workers outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s 20-year history.

It’s not only in Silicon Valley. The trend is on the rise as public companies look for ways to trim HR costs or hire in-demand skills in a tight labor market. The U.S. jobless rate dropped to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest since 1969, down from 3.9 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some 57.3 million Americans, or 36 percent of the workforce, are now freelancing, according to a 2017 report by Upwork. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties alone, there are an estimated 39,000 workers who are contracted to tech companies, according to one estimate by University of California Santa Cruz researchers.

Spokespersons at Facebook and Alphabet declined to disclose the number of contract workers they employ. A spokesperson at Alphabet cited two main reasons for hiring contract or temporary workers. One reason is when the company doesn’t have or want to build out expertise in a particular area such as doctors, food service, customer support or shuttle bus drivers. Another reason is a need for temporary workers when there is a sudden spike in workload or to cover for an employee who is on leave.

Half of US Uber drivers make less than $10 an hour after vehicle expenses

Uber lures drivers with the idea of being your own boss and “making great money with your car.” The “great money” part is up for debate.

The median hourly pay with tip for Uber drivers in the U.S. is $14.73, according to a new study conducted by Ridester, a publication that focuses on the ride-hail industry. That figure includes tips but doesn’t account for expenses like insurance, gas and car depreciation incurred while working. Using Ridester’s low-end estimate of $5 per hour in vehicle costs, drivers would bring in $9.73 per hour and potentially much less.

That implies a driver working 40 hours per week would make an annual salary of almost $31,000 before vehicle expenses, and about $20,000 after expenses (but still before taxes). That’s below the poverty threshold for a family of three.

This is important because online “gig economy” jobs, including driving for Uber, are a growing part of the U.S. workforce: About 5 percent of the working population has worked in the gig economy in the past year, up from 2 percent in 2013. So their labor is increasingly tied to overall prosperity. Additionally, these workers are still typically considered contractors, meaning that they aren’t required to receive employer healthcare or other employee benefits.