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.

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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.

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