All hail the arrival of the robots

The raising of economic productivity through automation will free humans to do more interesting things instead.

Colin McInnes

Topics Science & Tech

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I became acutely aware of the droid takeover while travelling through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Like many regular flyers, I witnessed long ago the substitution of blue-uniformed KLM check-in staff with rows of touchscreens. But what’s new at Schiphol is that even the baggage drop-off desks have gone, replaced by yet another row of quiet and efficient machines.

For those yet to experience the full techno-glory of it, a low door slides open and luggage is placed inside. The door shuts, and then quickly re-opens with the luggage spookily gone. There is a vaguely disturbing fear that it will never be seen again.

Quietly it seems, the droids are taking over. Not in a sci-fi cull of warm meat by cold steel, but in a subtle, silent and ultimately glorious revolution. And as the humans whose labour is being culled, we should rejoice. Replacing human labour by machine is, of course, nothing new. The most recent information-driven revolution has been slow burning, ever since the heady days of cash dispensers replacing high-street bank clerks. But it’s now picking up pace, driven by rapid improvements in computing, whose performance-to-cost ratio is leveraging new innovations in robotics and automation.

While the most recent wave of automation was in services, as Amazon caused the demise of high-street bookstores and Expedia did for travel agents, the next wave of automation is likely to be in manual assembly. Electronics giant Foxconn aims to employ up to one million new robots in the coming years, while US manufacturer Rethink Robotics has recently launched Baxter, an ultra-low cost, dexterous assembly robot. Unlike pre-programmed industrial robots, Baxter uses behaviour-based autonomy to integrate seamlessly with human co-workers. And of course, Baxter works a three-shift day, doesn’t ask for benefits and isn’t trying to unionise the shop floor.

So while ATMs allowed us to dispense with hordes of white-collar bank clerks, future factory automation will continue the cull of blue-collar assembly workers. But even as human workers are displaced out of manufacturing, the actual value of manufacturing output has never been higher. Due to the improved productivity delivered by automation, we now produce more goods using less labour, just as agricultural employment ultimately declined with the advent of mechanised production, but food production soared.

But although the improved productivity delivered by automation is ultimately progressive – our modern service economy depends on it – when improvements in labour productivity accelerate ahead there is the real risk of social dislocation. It was Keynes who mused that the unemployment of the Great Depression was at least partly due to the advent of production-line automation and other technical innovations.

The same dislocations can be seen today. Computer-aided manufacturing is replacing skilled machine-tool operators, but has not, as yet, replaced supermarket shelf-stacking. Automation can free labour to move up the skills ladder in a progressive and virtuous spiral. But it can also drive labour into even lower-paid jobs, those which are unskilled but are still too awkward to automate. And it has the potential to drive out even low-paid labour once the cost of automation falls below the minimum wage.

The reason that capital wants to displace labour is that it needs to pay it. In contrast, it can be argued that, technologically, the Industrial Revolution could have taken place in Rome, but didn’t. In a slave economy, there was no underlying motivation to replace carbohydrate-fuelled human labour with hydrocarbon-fuelled machines. In fact, in terms of their physiological efficiency at turning carbohydrates into useful biomechanical work, humans are actually more efficient than traditional beasts of burden. Human slaves have been the cheap droids of history, whether working the land, the home or the battlefield.

So why should we embrace the droid revolution? Again, while automation can destroy jobs, particularly the dull and dangerous, it also creates higher-value jobs with specialist skills that are too expensive to automate or which require human creativity. Automation also acts as a deflationary pressure to drive down prices, offering a mass democratisation of access to products and services. This has been the key outcome of human innovation, where improvements in efficiency allow us to do so much more with fewer material and labour inputs. For example, a 1970s hard-wired phone needed to be connected to many tonnes of copper wire in a network of landlines to deliver useful functionality. In contrast, the dematerialisation of wireless mobile phones has driven down the price of communication services, to the extent that there are now over six billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide.

In future, it is argued that the same wave of creative destruction that has been seen in communications, retail and other services will cut through healthcare and education. The most basic healthcare services can, in principle, be replaced by an online inference engine, and a medical database, even lab-on-a-chip home diagnostics. Similarly, a lecture posted on YouTube is delivered in the flesh only once, but can be viewed endlessly by anyone with access to a web browser. Lowering the cost of healthcare and barriers to higher education is clearly no bad thing. As with improvements in productivity in other sectors, it can again lead to a mass democratisation of access to such services. Education, training and up-skilling can be the principal means through which we can ride out Schumpeter’s waves of creative destruction, rather than be swamped by them.

So the key to avoiding future social dislocation through advances in automation is two-fold. First, by reducing the cost and improving the quality of education; and then ensuring that the fruits of innovation are shared. Ned Ludd didn’t have an innate dislike of Jacquard’s automated loom, he merely foresaw that the coming wave of innovation would benefit others, not those whose labour was being displaced. If Ludd had maintained the same income for fewer hours worked, then he would have been more accommodating during that great transition to a more productive machine economy.

And in order to benefit from the potential transition to a true post-scarcity economy in future, we need to challenge traditional business models and hierarchies, ensuring that advances in productivity are indeed translated into a deflation of prices, rather than a simple accumulation of wealth by capital. The coming end-game of some traditional business models based on scarcity can be seen in corporate patent-trolling – the increasingly zealous enforcement of copyright – and even the curious ‘Disney Vault’ which limits the circulation of decades-old cartoon material.

But while the developed nations will continue to replace humans with machines, the need to displace human labour is most acute in the developing world. So much human potential is wasted on small-scale subsistence farming. This is labour that could be growing economies and delivering services in health and education; a hand clasped to a scythe is not holding a stethoscope or a pen. The goal of economic development therefore needs to be to make small-scale farmers, or at least their children and grandchildren, entirely redundant. They will then be free to serve as teachers, doctors, engineers and a host of other productive jobs. Charities should bear this in mind. Ultimately, the global poor need tractors, not goats. And let’s remember, that in our modern service-led economy, nurses nurse and teachers teach, only because someone else, or increasingly something else is providing their material needs.

So if we continue to do more with less, what is labour to do? Futurist Buckminster Fuller made the observation that ‘we should do away with the notion that absolutely everybody has to earn a living’. He notes that the idea of earning a living, or being employed, is based on the premise that labour is required for basic survival. While this is certainly true in many developing nations, in the developed world this need has largely passed.

But discarding the long-held notion of purposeful paid work does not imply a life of hedonistic idleness, or the onset of societal nihilism. Leisure can be defined as the absence of material need for labour, which liberates us from that necessity, freeing us to pursue other worthy goals. In contrast, while recognising the liberating nature of innovation, Fuller also cautioned that we risk using future gains in productivity simply to invent jobs. Witness the purposeless bureaucracy of the present, which readily soaks up our time. Rather than churning prosperity, we could be pushing the frontiers of science, exploration and other human endeavours, mixed in with some hedonistic idleness no doubt.

More recently, debates on post-scarcity variously span Marx’s view that the end of subordination of the individual to the division of labour will ultimately set us free, that Hayek’s freed market will indeed deliver a rapid deflation of prices and create wealth even on low incomes, that owners of capital will need to create scarcity to lift prices above rock-bottom and sustain returns, or even that a small, potentially genocidal rentier class will have little need at all for their fellow citizens.

Aside from these many and varied asymptotic end states, it’s also worth considering philosopher John Rawls’ so-called original position. Rawls asks us to consider choosing the level of inequality in a society into which, blind-folded, we are to be randomly positioned. Choosing a highly unequal society would yield a small chance of being king, but a much greater chance of being a slave. A society of equals risks all being equally poor. Rawl’s choice is therefore inequality which is enough to maximise overall shared prosperity.

But, with automation we have another dimension to consider. We can in principle have a society of slaves, but the slaves can be droids, both machine and software. We then have the possibility of truly being kings in a world where labour and leisure are interchangeable. Unfortunately, our current thinking is firmly grounded in the economics of scarcity. We should fight for a future of abundance, a shared global prosperity, and the merciless exploitation of the droids.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde. Other articles can be found at Perpetual Motion.

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Topics Science & Tech


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