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Will Uber Be the Boss of You?

30/07/2015 20:50 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

Uber will like, totally change your life... Or so we thought. But Uber now stands accused of hiding behind algorithms to mask the power and control it exerts over drivers. This is the charge levelled to the company this week by two researchers at a New York think tank. They argue that the app creates a 'mirage' of a marketplace but in fact is masking a traditional employer-employee relationship.

An Uber driver has now been classified as an employee in a US court. This latest controversy has brought the debate over the 'sharing economy' to a new level of intensity. Presidential hopeful, Hilary Clinton has accused the sector of wage theft and is considering a third category of worker between 'contractor' and 'employee'.

Commentators on the 'future of work' swing between the apocalyptic 'rise of the robots' and utopian visions of a world in which power structures have withered away. The reality is likely to be somewhere in between. But the debates over how to regulate a company like Uber shows us how technology is shaking up how we work and live, while politicians are lagging behind.

Platform companies such as Uber and Airbnb work because they use algorithms, rather than staff, to match drivers to passengers, and apartments to travellers. But it's not just taxi drivers and travel agents who could get replaced by robots. The highly educated, professional middle class are under threat too. Telesurgery now allows surgeons hundreds of miles away to operate on patients and researchers are even predicting robot surgeons with artificial intelligence.

Those with the skills to develop and use ever more sophisticated technology stand to benefit but the unskilled are still most at risk. Amazon monitors its warehouse workers with GPS tags, and while the platform model of business enables flexible and autonomous working, that work is often precarious.

The steam train and the printing press generated their fair share of fear and industrial struggle but the speed and scale of change sets today apart. As cab drivers, and eventually even Uber drivers, lose their sources of income (as driverless cars become commercially viable), we see the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Elon Musks accumulate wealth at a rate faster than the rest of us can countenance or counteract.

Technology can make us more productive, and raise wages, but only if people and machines complement each other. We will increasingly need education systems that develop intrinsically human skills in more people (not just elites). Those 'soft' skills are less likely to be automated and more likely to complement technology. Creativity, empathy and compassion will be the last human qualities to be automated.

If the new economy requires fewer, more highly-skilled workers, we may need to rethink how we spread income. In the past, the gains of economic growth were spread through wages and the welfare state. But if we want to make sure that those who want to work, can, more flexible and part-time jobs will be needed to distribute work and wages.

If people's skills don't catch up with technological change, then it's the people with the technology who will reap the reward of growth. But by taxing and redistributing wealth, we can give people a more equal chance of owning and benefiting from technology. Those who own the robots will own the new means of production. Those who invent the disaggregating web platforms will be the new 'masters of the universe'.

To make sure technological change benefits everyone, radical new ideas about spreading both human and financial capital need to be on the table. But what the debate about Uber shows is that we also need to talk about power and who holds it. After all, technology may be neutral but how it impacts on work and who benefits is not. Our politics - and public policy - will remain vital in shaping these outcomes, and ensuring that Uber works for us and we don't end up working for Uber.

Carys Roberts and Mathew Lawrence are researchers at the IPPR think tank, which recently published a collection of essays on the future of work.