How about worker-owned automation?

Epistemic status: I've been ruminating on Fully Automated Luxury Communism and how to make it happen. Can't tell if it'll succeed, but it's something worth working toward.

Recent events have reawoken an idea that I've wanted to tackle since I was a teenager. Over the past few months as I've been learning, I've also been reorganizing my life and finances to try to take a new direction.

To put it bluntly, I feel like it's time to find a way to ethically get rid of all the crappy jobs in our economy. I want to help make this happen before the big corporations do it so that the wealth and leisure can go to workers, rather than sharehoolders. In this post, I offer my reasoning and my plan to start to tackle this.

Automation should be good

When I was twelve, I started working in the corn fields doing a job called detasselling. On geologic timescales detasseling is a great gig, but compared to the high school jobs that my current circle of friends had, it's a little infathomable. Basically, you walk through a corn field for 8-10 hours a day, get filthy, get cut up by corn leaves across the arms and face, and go home completely exhausted every day.

Although the job was pretty grueling, the work itself wasn't really the worst part. The thing that really hurt was all the time that I had to give up to do it. When I step back and think about all the grueling monotous tasks that are done every day in this country, I get overwhelmed with how much human potential is ground into watsted time. I just want fewer people in this world to have to waste their precious time. In every company I've worked in since that time, I've had this nagging sensation that most the jobs could have been largely automated away if we really wanted to.

The downside

But automation takes away jobs. I hear you, but I think that misses the point. We do not have a fundamental problem with taking away a crappy job. We have a problem taking away the income that the crappy job provided.

I have an opposite theory of the economics of crappy jobs. I think our society is structured to keep people in the lowest social class simply so that they have no choice but to do our worst labor for the worst pay. Maybe if those jobs weren't there, there wouldn't be a reason to systematically prevent everyone from moving up in the world.

On the other hand, I don't have too much faith in how the privileged class deals with others. There's a possibility that if the crappy jobs weren't still necessary, the wealthiest in the world would doom the rest of us to some kind of minimal subsistence while they reap all the benefits of an automated world.

So how to prevent this? For the past several months, I have been contemplating a workaround for the automation dystopia endgame. I think the solution comes down to the following:

Distribute the benefit of automation equitably

Yep, pretty simple huh? Others have described this concept before. Keep in mind that I'm not suggesting that we have to rely on government intervention to make it happen. Although I would love large scale systemic change, I think it's possible to take individual action to distribute wealth fairly to workers.

Worker-owned automation

I'm proposing a type of worker-owned company where the benefits of automation continually reduce the load on workers without reducing their compensation. Imagine a company of colleagues who only have to work an hour or two a day helping maintain a robot here or there. The rest of the time is theirs to better themselves any way that they can. Maybe they want to study science or create art. Maybe they want to raise a healthy stable family. The possibilities would be endless, and they would be available equally to everyone in the company.

This system could take many forms, but I've been thinking for the past few months about how I'd want to do this. Below I walk through the major questions that I've needed to answer in brief. I'll be writing more as I figure out more details.

How would worker ownership work?

I've been reading about a few ways to allow worker ownership, but to me the best seems to be the worker-owned cooperative (despite the very real difficulties). It seems that often a cooperative is formed by restructuring an existing business, but since I know I want mine to work that way eventually, it makes sense to start with worker-ownership from the beginning.

The governance of company decision making would be to use a 1-worker 1-vote system with the option for proxy voting. Day-to-day operational decision making would be worked out democratically, preferably with the establishment of focused committees to delegate operations effectively. There already exists established laws and standard practices in California for worker-owned coops that could help get started. The articles of incorporation and Board bylaws would add some other stipulations, such as how to dissolve or fundamentally restructure the company or establishment of some broad definitions of how compensation can work. I've previously written a "constitution" with my partner, and for starters I'll probably use the idea of a constitution as a basis for some informal bylaws while starting out. That would transition to a more formal structure when needed.

Since the goal of this company is actually to automate away all of the actual labor, one of the more interesting aspects of this type of worker-ownership is the compensation plan. As the companies labor is turned over to robots, it seems like it will become increasingly complicated to determine how much each person should be paid. My current thinking on this system would be to use profit sharing to set an hourly wage, but allow individual's hourly wage to be renormalized based on contributions to company wide improvements in efficiency. This way workers will continue to have an incentive to "show up" to work, while also incentivizing innovations that actually reduce the amount of work that everyone does.

One thing that is important to me is to try to establish as much external company transparency as possible. Ideally, I'd like our whole operating budget and pay structure to be open-sourced as it were. But of course, how far the company would be willing to take that would need to be up to the organization.

There are still a lot of details to work out on the company structure, and a lot of learning that will be required. Furthermore, the details will no doubt be industry specific so it doesn't make to much sense to continue in the abstract.

What industry would be best to tackle?

There are a lot of businesses where this could happen, but in my opinion the most important one to go after is foodservice. This seems like an industry where automation is probably inevitable, but major players are still surprisingly early in the process even though it was doable 50 years ago. This makes me think it's hard, but not impossible.

But what's prehaps most important to my motivation is that automating away those jobs in a non-worker-owned way would be devastating to workers in those industries now. In 2010 1 in 12 US workers were in the food service industry, and people in those occupations also had one of the lowest average wages nationally.

Additionally, the barrier to entry for owning a restaurant is still accessible enough that nearly 13,000 open per year. So a well-distributed innovation here could provide an entrypoint for thousands of worker-owned automated businesses per year without needing a large centralized pool of capital.

The flipside is that any innovation in automation would quickly be appropriated by the biggest players. The one reason I think this is surmountable is the public's growing social conscientiousness when it comes to choosing where to buy services (particularly my millenial generation and younger). In short, I think the immediacy of food preparation makes it easier for consumers to choose ethics over convenience. My hope would be that an ethical framework for automated cuisine would win out over larger greedy corporations, at least with enough people to make it viable.

For all of the reasons above I feel it makes sense to tackle the food service industry, but there are still many ways to approach the problem.

What would the company do?

Importantly, I don't think that making technology and selling it to restaurants would be effective in preventing job loss. If we build something for automating cooking and sell it to a fast-food chain, they will lay off their employees and pass the profits off to shareholders.

On the other hand, I'm not personally the kind of leader who could possibly launch a large scale operation to compete with those companies. Instead, I want to try building a small but scalable solution that could be run by others. Therefore, my goal is to launch and operate a few automated foodtrucks, while providing the blueprint to do the same at larger scale.

In the beginning the foodtrucks would be partially automated and should only require a few hours of work per employee per week. The revenue from the foodtruck should hopefully be similar as one run with a standard crew so workers should, therefore, make better than food service wages with greatly reduced hours.

I'm still working through details like what foods would be served, how ingredients would be procured, aesthetics, and how customer interaction would work. I'll follow up with another post soon that covers these details and more.

What are the biggest hurdles?

This will only happen with a lot of work, and some good luck. I've spent 15 years working in software development and machine learning, and I have experience working in automation and robotics. Additionally, I've been a Board member of a tech education non-profit for a little over 4 years now. I'm currently working on simulated prototypes of the food truck design, which I'll show in another blog post soon. There are a lot of technical challenges to overcome and I'm interested in working to tackle this problem with others who share similar interests and goals.

Nevertheless, I don't believe the hardest part is going to be automating food production. I think that is very solvable and has been done before to varying degrees.

I think the hardest part will certainly be fighting against the "lowest common denominator" economics. Ultimately, anyone will be able to compete in this market. Once there is an ethical automated foodtruck, there will soon be a cheaper, unethical automated foodtruck. What will keep a customer from supporting 10 employees for the price of a regular meal at the ethical company, when they can go next door and pay just 1 employee and pay 90% less? For that matter, what will keep an employee at the ethical store from quitting to open their own unethical one and rake in all the profit for themselves.

This is why I believe that complete transparency is the key. I haven't seen any examples of companies operating that way, but I think it's the only way to create the kind of trust that will differentiate this new system from the old one.

Betting on humanity's better nature is always a long shot, but the past month has reinvigorated my faith in my fellow citizens to collectively take action to change the world for the better. At no point in my life did I think there was a better chance for this kind effort to happen without exploitation, which is why I'm finally willing to take the steps to make it happen.

And while I honestly don't expect everything to work out, even if this project only just barely survives a few months, I think it'll be the most important thing I'll ever try to do.

First steps

I already feel overwhelmed by this idea, but I'm also incredibly excited to have started taking steps to put it into action.

  • 1. build simulation of operational foodtruck
  • 2. build "sous-chef" prototype
  • 3. write company charter
  • 4. build online ordering with fully transparent online budget
  • 5. fund first prototype truck through kickstarter
  • 6. build the damn thing

Along the way, I hope to start taking on co-worker-owners to help figure things out and establish the governance framework. I'd also love contact from mentors who could help us better understand foodtruck management, automation, California worker cooperatives, or company transparency. If you are interested please reach out.

Also, feel free to steal this plan if you think you can do it better than me. You probably can. I honestly don't care if I'm the person who pulls this off as long as it happens. Just let me know when you get it, and I'll join you!

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