Don't Fight The Robots: The False Choice Of Worker V. Machine

Mechanization is bound to destroy jobs, which not surprisingly provokes fear. But trying to delay the inevitable only makes matters worse and prepares neither society nor laborer for the future.

Who needs cashiers, really?
Who needs cashiers, really?
Olivier Babeau

PARIS — To comply with the ban on working on Sunday, the Casino superstore in Angers replaced its employees on Sundays with machines, and reduced security staff to outsourced temporary workers. The first Sunday it did that, unions staged vigorous protests that included sporadic violence. It was a perfect metaphor for the antagonistic view of the relationship between workers on the one hand, and technology and consumers on the other. This would-be confrontation must change, and fast.

Many consider, wrongly, that work is a kind of cake to be divvied up. That inevitably generates a zero-sum vision of the need for workers, wherein every new machine means one less position for a person. It overlooks the philosopher Joseph Schumpeter's principle of creative destruction, which insists on new needs and job opportunities emerging as others are met or automated. It is useless to oppose this process. Karl Marx himself once wrote that "technology will always be stronger than legal and political technostructures."

Will anyone miss waiting in line to pay at a supermarket?

No work that could be done entirely and more cheaply by machines is immune; better yet, regulatory and fiscal restrictions inevitably entail mechanization. So there is no credible moratorium on technological progress in the long term. Should we have banned piped water for example, to protect the position of water carriers?

One discerns another misconception in reactions to the un-staffed superstore: the supposed clash of interests between workers and consumers. In focusing on safeguarding job positions, one loses sight of the central element, which is the added value of work that is a direct response to a need. Thinking in terms of saving jobs is to overlook the fact that sometimes, a particular position's added value has disappeared while new needs are emerging elsewhere.

Many monopoly actors, like taxis once did, wound up paying the price of a blinkered view that ultimately nurtures competitors. Technological innovations improve quality of service (will anyone miss waiting in line to pay at a supermarket?) and help guide staff toward tasks with greater added value, like advising customers.

La Roseraie Casino superstore in Angers — Photo: Google Street View

In his 1931 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes elaborated his idea of "technological unemployment" as a new ailment of developed societies, caused by a discrepancy between technological progress and workers' skills. The solution is well-known: anticipating future needs in skills and training. Unions and state officials very often react assuming workers are passive beings to whom one promises stability and protection. We should no longer protect, but arm them.

It is cowardly and irresponsible to keep dangling the prospects of safeguarding threatened jobs, which is what politicians often do trying to "attend to" workers' fears and concerns. As for employers, they are not so much guilty of introducing technologies as they are of not helping their workers anticipate new developments.

Should we have banned piped water to protect water carriers?

One trade union leader told an interviewer she was concerned machines would be used on other days too. Well, that is exactly what is going to happen and all retailing may one day look like the Amazon Go store in New York, with no cashiers in sight. And that is great news. Another striking picture recently circulating on social networks was of a robot masterfully cleaning New York's public toilets. It is difficult to see how one could yearn for such jobs, when their disappearance will mean workers are assigned to other tasks.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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