Innovation Talk: ‘Killer robot’ headlines mask workers’ anxiety about jobs

Perhaps more than any other technology, robotisation and automation threaten to reshape society, and we better have some ideas as to how we will adapt to that changed landscape

Every time you use the  automatic checkout machine at the supermarket, you are essentially getting a flavour of how the future is going to look in a whole variety of industries. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Every time you use the automatic checkout machine at the supermarket, you are essentially getting a flavour of how the future is going to look in a whole variety of industries. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

A few weeks ago, a tragic accident occurred at a Volkswagen factory in Baunatal, Germany. A 21-year-old contractor was installing a robot when its arm grabbed his chest and pinned him against a metal plate, causing fatal injuries.

Obviously, this incident was a workplace accident, and even in the safest, best-designed factories, these freak events can happen.

Inevitably, however, the incident was widely portrayed as a sort of harbinger for things to come, a crude metaphor for the inevitable rise of automation in the workplace.

“Rise of the Machines: ROBOT KILLS MAN at Volkswagen plant”, went the headline on The Register, which quipped that “Operator error, not Skynet, is early suspect”.

“The type of robot that crushed the employee is usually kept in a cage,” according to the article in Time, as if describing a dangerous animal at the zoo; “Worker death draws attention to next gen collaborative robots,” wrote ZDNet; while an article on Popular Science that was actually trying to tone down the alarm- ism went with the headline “You shouldn’t be afraid of that killer Volkswagen robot”.

Needless to say, using such a tragic accident as a metaphor for anything is undeniably crass, but it hints at the latent anxiety that exists about the vulnerability of human workers in an era of increasing automation.

The rise of robots has long been a trope in science fiction, of course, but from Isaac Asimov to Philip K Dick, from The Terminator to The Matrix, the anxiety has focused on artificial intelligence growing too intelligent for humans to control.

Those concerns have recently been echoed by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, people who are not exactly prone to dystopian whimsy.

For the moment, however, artificial intelligence is merely a theoretical threat to civilisation. The anxiety about the widespread usurpation of human workers by automation, on the other hand, is something we need to give a lot more consideration to, because it is very likely we will begin having to deal with just such a transformation within our lifetimes.

Large swathes of work currently carried out by humans is repetitive and low-skilled, the sort of tasks that can easily be carried out by well-designed machines and robots. Every time you use the self-service petrol pump or the automatic checkout machine at the supermarket, you are essentially getting a flavour of how the future is going to look in a whole variety of industries.

That impending possibility has spawned quite a bit of fascinating research and discussion over the past few years, with Derek Thompson’s excellent 10,000-word Atlantic cover article, A World Without Work, being the most recent example.

Thompson paints a compelling, and ominous, picture of a world where careers are rare and widespread employment rarer still. He points out that in 2013, Oxford University economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne predicted that within 20 years machines might be able to perform half of all US jobs. That sounds ludicrous, until you consider what most jobs entail.

“The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk,” Thompson writes. “Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people – nearly 10 per cent of the labor force.” Those jobs, needless to say, are particularly vulnerable to automation and computerisation.

But the ramifications go beyond mass joblessness. Thompson cites a possibly apocryphal anecdote that hints at the social changes that might be wrought in the future. “In the 1950s, Henry Ford II, the CEO of Ford, and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union, were touring a new engine plant in Cleveland. Ford gestured to a fleet of machines and said, “Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” The union boss famously replied: “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

From a Marxist perspective, the anecdote hints at a future in which capital has won out over labour to such an extent that both begin to atrophy. It hints, also, at how society will be forced to reorder itself once the world of work is no longer available to everybody.

The seriousness of the potential threat is reflected in the number of books tackling the subject in recent years. The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee; Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford; and Average Is Over by the brilliantly engaging US economist Tyler Cowen all tease out the potential social and economic disruptions resulting from increasing automation.

These are fascinating if slightly terrifying works – they essentially argue we are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, and instead of the steam engine and the power loom, we will have the computer and the robot. It’s not hard to see how that scenario might easily change society as dramatically as the first industrial revolution did, if not more so.

Even if only some of their predictions come to pass, rising automation will lead to massive social upheaval as we adjust to limited job and career prospects – Ford, for instance, suggests that the pressure for a guaranteed basic income to ameliorate the effects of mass unemployment will make today’s policy debates over the size of the welfare state seem like so much petty squabbling.

Such predictions are prone to all sorts of erroneous thinking and unanticipated turns of events, of course, but it would be reckless to avoid considering what might happen when most humans are no longer guaranteed a life of work. Perhaps more than any other technology, robotisation and automation threaten to reshape society, and we better have some ideas as to how we will adapt to that changed landscape.

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