What’s in the box? Kiwibot and the platform economy

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On: September 23, 2019
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Cute white boxes ride around trendy city streets. A bespectacled young man orders a nice burger with his iPhone, sitting behind his space grey Macbook air. The new-age delivery men ride along on four wheels, delivering anything and everything that fits in their boxy frames, red flags with the Kiwi-logo proudly displayed. Once arrived, only the user can open the robot and retrieve their meal from within.

How easy, the future is truly here!

There has been much to-do about the current state of employment in the Western world. Amidst the rise of the gig-economy and platform capitalism, automation has become a huge new issue in manufacturing jobs, even getting presidents elected, if a certain Democratic Presidential Candidate is to be believed.

This is the context in which the Kiwibot was first introduced to the UC Berkeley campus as a small startup from Colombian student Felipe Chavez. The cute robots were quickly deployed on the campus to deliver a variety of packages to students and users around the coverage area. The robots have proven to be popular, as seen by the large amount of social media posts they inspire. Kiwi is even weighing expansion to other universities, writes the SF Chronicle’s Carolyn Said.

However, there’s a different side to these lovable futuristic deliverymen. Buried in the same article by the SF Chronicle and a Medium article charitably titled “How students in Colombia empower robots in California” lies a familiar story; a group of Colombian workers provide the Kiwibots with their instructions, inputting directions every 5-10 seconds to ensure the bots are going the right way.

Reading the Medium article in detail, it focuses mostly on the technological elements of the work the students do, and how that works to make the Kiwibot a better product. It boasts about their machine learning model and some “incredible milestones” achieved since their very first delivery in 2017. Only at the end do they acknowledge the practice of their hirings as residing in “emerging economies with job market difficulties for youths, and where large differences in purchasing power parity exist”.

The platform economy

The rise of the internet, algorithms and big data has allowed the rise of large digital platforms. These developments in online infrastructures and services have opened the way for new kinds of socializing, working, and, importantly, new kinds of economic value. The new economy that has sprung up in the wake of these developments goes by different names, as illustrated by Kenney and Zysman: “It’s boosters have called it the Creative Economy or the Sharing Economy, whereas those less convinced of its beneficence have dubbed it the Gig Economy…” (Kenney 62). However, this type of new digital economy has generally been dubbed the platform economy. Therefore, in this piece I will use the term platform economy when referring to the new economy more broadly, and gig economy in specific cases where the subject of work is concerned.

Kiwi can in the context of this platform economy be considered a service-providing platform. It is a platform designed to supplant and replace the service traditionally provided by Uber Eats or Postmates, in themselves already service-providing platforms. In this sense Kiwibot can be seen as a second-generation product of the platform economy, a push to automate and make even more convenient the delivery service.

In Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods, Graham et al identify four key concerns for digital workers on the economic margins: bargaining power, economic exclusion, intermediation and skill and capability development. Looking at the hiring strategies of digital platforms, workers are generally classified as independent contractors. This allows the employers to minimise outside regulation.

As written by Graham et al, the digital workplace doesn’t just allow for intermediation, but can afterwards also allow a digital worker to move to more direct relationships with clients through acquired skills. This is one area where the platform economy could provide beneficial for digital workers. As proudly exclaimed in their Medium article, Kiwi allows their student workers to get valuable experience with “one of the foremost technological companies in Colombia, making them employable in a variety of industries”. They also offer free training in the field of robotics. Assuming all of these things to be true, this at least gives Kiwi’s workers the skills and knowledge to take advantage of disintermediation. However, as Graham et al point out, there is still risk of reintermediation, where  the direct connection between the worker proves to be only temporary, and the worker becomes an intermediary themselves, or takes work from another digital worker, going back to their previous position.

Conclusion

Then, in the end, what is there to do? Do we stop using these convenient services and go back to ordering our food the old way. Or, God forbid, go out and get it ourselves? Is it time to stop looking toward new, easier services and leave the dreams of robotic deliverymen behind?

Tempting, but that is not the answer. What’s important is that users stay aware of what the services they use are actually doing. Much like the way digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube hide the true cost of their use, namely data generated by users, Kiwi’s robots don’t just work by themselves. Behind their adorable screens are real people, working at rates far below those manageable in North America and Europe. Here we see a combination of the pitfalls of the Gig Economy and the traditional problems of capitalism. While the digital economy offers new employment opportunities to workers across the world, it would be wise not to forget it can just as easily allow the same old workers abuse and exploitation we know and love to spread into even more industries.

Bibliography

De Stefano, Valerio. “The rise of the “just-in-time workforce”: on-demand work, crowdwork, and labor protection in the “gig-economy”.” Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, volume 37, number 471, 2016.

Friedman, G. “Workers without employers: shadow corporations and the rise of the gig economy.” Review of Keynesian Economics, volume 2(2), 2014: 171-188. www.researchgate.net/profile/Gerald_Friedman/publication/276191257_Workers_without_employers_Shadow_corporations_and_the_rise_of_the_gig_economy/links/5731c7bf08ae6cca19a3081f.pdf

Graham, Mark, Isis Hjroth and Vili Lehdonvirta. “Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods.” Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, volume 23(2): 135-162. journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1024258916687250

“How Kiwibot Works – making deliveries cheaper and faster with robots.” YouTube , uploaded by Kiwibot, 11 January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyO9TJHEQ7E.

Kane, Will. “Those four-wheeled robots on campus, explained.” Berkeley News, 31 May. 2018, news.berkeley.edu/2018/05/31/those-four-wheeled-robots-on-campus-explained/

Kenney, Martin and John Zysman. “The rise of the Platform Economy.” Issues in science and technology, spring 2016: 61-69. www.nbp.pl/badania/seminaria/25x2016_2.pdf

Kiwibot – food delivery robot. https://www.kiwicampus.com/

Rogers, Brishen. “Employment Rights in the Platform Economy: Getting Back to Basics.” Harvard Law & Policy Review, volume 10, 2016: 479-520. harvardlpr.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2016/06/10.2_7_Rogers.pdf

Said, Carol. ”Kiwibots win fans at UC Berkeley as they deliver fast food at low speeds.” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May. 2019, www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Kiwibots-win-fans-at-UC-Berkeley-as-they-deliver-13895867.php.

Vargas, Jorge Andrés. “How students in Colombia empower robots in California.” Medium, 31 May.  medium.com/kiwicampus/how-kiwi-empowers-students-in-colombia-fe99cf1bbc8d

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