The Instrument of Labour: How Politics is Influencing Automation

In the most advanced manufacturing sectors, robots are already able to work unsupervised round the clock for up to 30 days without interruption, creating anxiety around human job security. We explore the role of politics in automation

Industrialisation has always been a sticky issue. From the Luddites’ rally against gig mills to the Swing Riots of the 1830s, when a traditionally human-operated process is replaced by a mechanised or computerised one, there is a sure amount of fear and uncertainty that surrounds the transition.

In December last year the Bank of England released a warning that up to 15 million jobs in Britain will be at risk of being lost to the advancement of robotics, a statement that was quickly followed in January by another from The World Economic Forum, which cautioned that that while “the fourth industrial revolution” is transforming the labour markets, it will in turn lead to the loss of more than five million jobs over 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020.

The Bank of England released a warning that up to 15 million jobs in Britain will be at risk of being lost to the advancement of robotics

The reasoning behind increased automation makes perfect sense from a manufacturing perspective: automated processes increase output volume, as well as the level of consistency across products; they can work longer hours than humans; and in the long term cost far less to employ. Just take a look at some of the systems that came out of the industrial revolution: flushing toilets, threshing machines, conveyor bands and automobiles. The influx of new and exciting technology swiftly transformed the Western world at a rate that had never been seen before. The disruption to the status quo may seem quite seamless in hindsight, given the benefits of modern tech, but the technological anxiety that drove frightened workers to pick up hoes and defend their livelihood during the industrial revolution are creeping back to the forefront of the employment debate as high street shop assistants lose business to online shopping systems and service staff are replaced by their touchscreen equivalents.

Recent automated processes are being implemented at a similarly rapid speed and digitisation is dramatically reducing transaction costs, but as the job market evolves to adapt to new technology and processes, how do we protect the jobs that are available? And just what is the cost of automation?

A shock to the system

The jobs seemingly most at risk from automation are lower and middle-skill positions, such as administrative, manufacturing and production roles, more commonly associated with lower income households. And with highly controversial topics surrounding zero-hour contracts, the benefits system and the minimum wage regularly dominating headlines, as well as reports that future generations may have to work into their eighties before retiring, it’s no surprise that the concept of human value lies at the heart of the automation debate.

This is especially true of areas that rely on one specific industry for employment, such as manufacturing and mining communities. As a plant or business develops, employing people who live or settle in the surrounding areas, it creates community with skill sets that are specific to a particular industry. If these roles becomes automated, then those skills are no longer valuable. The business minded will argue that those now redundant workers can simply retrain into another form of employment, but for an industry-specific area, that can mean a mass exodus of able-bodied workers looking for uncertain employment elsewhere. And for those who stay behind, the economic decline can be just as ambiguous. For example, following the decline of the automotive industry in Detroit, Michigan, as the big companies decentralised and tens of thousands of assembly-line jobs were replaced with machinery, poverty levels rose and residents abandoned ship, leaving behind thousands of deserted buildings. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on 18 July 2013. It is the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in US history, estimated at $18–$20bn.

shutterstock_418216030_nataliya-hora-shutterstock

The robotic revolution, however, is not limited to the Western world. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), China is investing millions in robotics to gain a top-10 ranking in automation for its industries by 2020. While the country currently falls behind industry giants in robot penetration with 36 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers in 2015, the country aims to increase this to 150 per 10,000 workers by 2020. One company leading the push is the Ying Ao sink foundry in southern China, which spent $3m on a four-year overhaul to incorporate nine robots capable of performing the tasks of 140 full-time workers. Meanwhile, Cambridge Industries Group CEO Gerald Wong plans to replace up to two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines over the next year, with the ultimate goal of creating fully-automated production facilities, or ‘dark factories’.

However, it appears unlikely that automation will completely replace human roles in entire industries. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, ‘Four fundamentals of workplace automation’, argued that automation is more likely to transform specific processes. “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs,” the article noted.

Embracing disruption

Historically we have been able to successfully adapt to disruptions created by technology, and if handled correctly the transition to automated systems should be no different. Its success will largely depend on the ability and willingness of workers and employers to be flexible and adapt to changing situations. Employees are going to have to place a large amount of trust in politicians and corporations to ensure that employment is obtainable to a wide range of skills and that wages reflect the actual cost of living; two things that neither has been noted for in the past.

No matter how hard you work, the simple fact is that there are things that machines do faster, without fuss and for a fraction of the overall cost

While the technology may be more sophisticated, the day-to-day complication of integrating automation into our working lives remains complex. The big mistake would be to put the cart in front of the horse and ignore the failures of the past in favour of rapid development. There is no point in creating large quantities of products if the general populous does not have the income to buy them. This in turn means that support systems for low-income workers need to be explicit in terms of job security, while there needs to be an even distribution of employment locations across both cities and rural areas to avoid underemployment in overpopulated areas.

Another area for politicians to focus on is responsibility. If a drone misfires or malfunctions, is the operator responsible? Or is the manufacturer? If a driverless car crashes, as was seen in the recent fatal accident of a Tesla vehicle operating in autopilot mode, which failed to break when another vehicle joined the road, is that the responsibility of the manufacturer? Or is it considered driver error? This will most likely require new legislation to cover automation in both public and work spaces.

factor-archive-27Automation is a threatening prospect because humans can’t compete. No matter how hard you work, how close to detail you are, or how many hours you dedicate to the role, the simple fact is that there are things that machines do faster, without fuss, and for a fraction of the overall cost. It is also, however, inevitable. But if we choose to invest in automation then we must also learn from the transitions of the past and develop a framework that adapts the new roles that human work will take to ensure the development and protection of these jobs.

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

In September the ESG business school in Paris will begin using artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class. The school says the technology will be used to improve performance of students and professors.

Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

A Chinese wind-turbine maker wants American workers to retrain and become wind farmers. The training program was announced at an energy conference in Wyoming, where the American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer is located.

Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

Google's DeepMind AI AlphaGo has defeated the world's number one Go player Ke Jie. AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie "pushed AlphaGo right to the limit".

Source: BBC

Vegan burgers that taste like real meat to hit Safeway stores

Beyond Meat, which promises its plant-based burgers bleed and sizzle like real ground beef and is backed by investors like Bill Gates, will begin distributing its plant-based burgers in more than 280 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. The discovery could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

Former US President Barack Obama has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian giving his views on some of the greatest challenges facing the world – food and climate change – and what we can do about them. "We can still act and it won’t be too late," writes Obama.

Source: The Guardian