After a brief overview of robots and their form and history in Part One, this post consider the place of robots in industrial economies. In many respects, the history of the robot is inextricably linked to questions of work and labour. The first use of the word robot was in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by the Cheokslavkian Karel Capek . As Dennis G. Jerz points out, “the Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.” This link between the robot as worker or labourer is also found in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which the robot Maria serves as a catalyst for a proletariat revolution. The connection between machine and wage-slave is even implicit in Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist manifesto in which they warn that, “owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine“. There remains the possibility that industrial robots might one day gain sentience in which case the robot uprising will be less like The Terminator and more like Battleship Potemkin.
Setting the question of robots developing class-consciousness aside (its difficult, I know, but let’s try) we first need a better understanding of just how common the use of industrial robots has become.While we might still be startled to see a robot trundling down the street it is easy to forget the robots are everywhere, often out of sight, whirring away feverishly in factories and warehouses. As the roboticist and human friend Dr Tom Larkworthy once astutely noted, “most robots are just arms“.
A few decades ago this was pretty whizz-bang stuff, as in Hugh Hudson’s iconic ‘Hand Built by Robots‘ advert for the Fiat Strada in 1979:
What once inspired awe and fascination is now taken for granted, if considered at all, but since Hudson’s hymn to the workerless factory the use of industrial robots has increased significantly. In October 2000, the UN estimated there to be 742, 500 industrial robots in use; more than half of which were being used in Japan. By 2011, According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study World Robotics 2012, there were at least 1,153,000 operational industrial robots and estimated to reach 1,575,000 by the end of 2015. The annual turnover for robot systems was estimated to be US$25.5 billion in 2011. (thanks wikipedia!)
That, to put it lightly, is big business indeed, and unlikely to slow down. For instance, Foxconn , which build iPads for Apple, hopes to have their first fully automated plant in operation sometime in the next five-to-10 years. Indeed, their appeal, from a capitalist perspective, is entirely clear; unlike puny humans, robots don’t need sleep, a living wage, tea-breaks or unions. Like Rossum’s Universal Robots, the subservient machines in the videos below are perfect workers, precision engineered to perform manual labour without rest or dissent. Clearly, if robots were to gain sentience, they would first have to have to be treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To take a small-scale example try this clearly troubled mechanoid folding towels over and over and over.
Or take this clip of the poor, enslaved factory-bot Baxter, clearly wishing he could weep with his weird on-screen eyes as his master coos about how ‘compliant’ he is and grabs his arm, and forces him to experience pre-programmed expressions of surprise and sadness.
Or see these poor bastards whose cruel demiurge crows that “the robots work tirelessly, stopping only now and then for a battery charge”:
Nor do these robots just appear in industrial habitats such as factories and warehouses. The proliferation of self-service check-outs in supermarkets is part of the same general trend, as is Amazon’s recent announcement that they intend to replace human delivery drivers with drones. One Chinese noodle-restaurant owner recently invested 20, 000 yaun in a robotic chef, explaining, “I don’t need to pay him, and for a consecutive work of 12 hours it only consumes 3 kWh of electricity. And the noodles it slices are even thinner than those of human workers.” Even within the realms of education and health care, technology is reducing the demand for skilled labour. As Robert Skidelsky points out, “translation, data analysis, legal research – a whole range of high-skilled jobs may wither away“. Even vocational callings such as nursing, in which human contact might be taken as wholly necessary, are subject to these developments, most particularly in the robot-lovin’ Japan. Witness GeckoSystem’s CareBot for instance, or the plethora of robots created to care for Japan’s ageing population in the video below.
If you need more grist for your automated mill check out this series of photos illustrating twelve jobs that have been replaced by technology.
The obvious question arises: what happens to the human workers who the robots replace? (To which we might include all those jobs that have been replaced/made unnecessary by the use of computers too). As ever, this is not a new debate. In 1821 the economist David Ricardo noted that:
the same cause [technology] which may increase the net revenue of the country, may at the same time render the population redundant, and deteriorate the condition of the labourer […]the opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests, is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy.
One does not have to be a raving Marxist to grasp the problem at work here. All but the most hard-line free-market capitalists understand that employment is a means by which wealth is redistributed (however unevenly). However, as Professor Andrew McAfee said in a recent interview, thanks to technology and increased automation:
Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the Great Recession. Corporate profits are back. Business investment in hardware and software is back higher than it’s ever been. What’s not back is the jobs.
As the ever-incisive Richard Metzger ponders over at Dangerous Minds:
It brings up the question of how the wealth of nations will be divvied up when only the holders (hoarders, if you prefer) of capital, employing armies of automatons and few human beings, will hold ALL the cards? Clearly not sustainable and besides that, WHO is going to buy their products anyway when no one will have a job or any money in the first place?
Even Business Week, which is, by its nature, hardly the most left-leaning publication in the world, recognises the problems posed by automation for Capitalism-As-We-Know-It:
For the past 300 years or so, the way the economy has distributed wealth is through jobs, with pay supplemented by union pressure, child labor laws, pensions, and other share-the-wealth strategies. The traditional method has been breaking down over the past few decades. Inequality has soared, and the Great American Job Machine has sputtered. We now have an opportunity to reverse the trend by expropriating the robots, computers, and algorithms. The challenge of our high-tech economy is how to take a hefty slice of wealth from the machines and offer ordinary people the reality of jobs with decent wages and compensation. That would be progress.
Or rather, that would be progress of a sort. Business Week’s solution is, not surprisingly, limited. Because many people are still not aware that they live in the future the problems arising from these developments are seen in the wrong context and approached with archaic twentieth century solutions. As the great Robert Anton Wilson, so often ahead of the curve, wrote back in 1980:
I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.
The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less.
Unemployment is directly caused by this technological capacity to do more-with-less. Thousands of monks were technologically unemployed by Gutenberg. Thousands of blacksmiths were technologically unemployed by Ford’s Model T. Each device that does-more-with-less makes human labor that much less necessary.
In short, if the robots can do the work, let the robots do the work and we humans can get on with better things. While some writers such as Jeremy Rifkin suggest the adoption of shorter working weeks, or ‘spreading the work’ as Robert Skidelsky describes it:
If one machine can cut necessary human labour by half, why make half of the workforce redundant, rather than employing the same number for half the time? Why not take advantage of automation to reduce the average working week from 40 hours to 30, and then to 20, and then to 10, with each diminishing block of labour time counting as a full time job? This would be possible if the gains from automation were not mostly seized by the rich and powerful, but were distributed fairly instead.
Back in 322 BC Aristotle, inspired by the Greek myths of artificial humans, speculated that automatons could someday abolish the need for human slaves, thus making all men equal:
There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates that “Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus”, as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.
Inspired by Aristotle’s speculation Robert Anton Wilson suggests some alternatives beyond Rifkind and Sidelsky’s:
Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery — very accurately called “wage slavery” by social critics — is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines.
Wilson goes on to suggest that despite ever-increasing unemployment (and technological increase means that structural unemployment – the unemployment that remains even when economies are doing well, has been trending upwards over the last 25 years),
big unions, the corporations, and government have all tacitly agreed to slow down the pace of cybernation, to drag their feet and run the economy with the brakes on. This is because they all, still, regard unemployment as a “disease” and cannot imagine a “cure” for the nearly total unemployment that full cybernation will create.
Suppose, for a moment, we challenge this Calvinistic mind-set. Let us regard wage-work — as most people do, in fact, regard it — as a curse, a drag, a nuisance, a barrier that stands between us and what we really want to do. In that case, your job is the disease, and unemployment is the cure.
Wilson’s excellent piece on The Rich Economy proposes a number of alternative economic systems, each of which are infinitely preferable to a world in which the rich can reap all the rewards of automation without nary a human employee to have to share the profit with. As it stands, politicians and policy-makers, and perhaps the majority of the public still cling to a protestant work ethic and model of work and labour that is fast becoming untenable. As David Graeber notes, as early as 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by the end of the century that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. Although we are clearly capable of this in technological terms, the response of those in power has instead been the creation of what Graeber,Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, delightfully describes as ‘bullshit jobs‘. For Graeber,
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Ah, there lies the rub! However, this is not to be taken as an argument between right wing and left wing economic arguments. In the third and final part of this series I want to suggest that the increased automation of industry is not simply an economic matter, but part of a broader wave of Post/Humanism that calls for thinking beyond binary categories of left and right or even human and machine. Until then, what better way to end this post than with Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.