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.

Scientists implant device to boost human memory

Scientists have enhanced human memory for the first time with a “memory prosthesis” brain implant. The team behind the device say it can boost performance on memory tests by up to 30%, and a similar approach may work for enhancing other brain skills, such as vision or movement.

Source: New Scientist

Astronomers discover Earth-sized world 11 light years away

A planet, Ross 128 b, has been discovered in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. The planet is 35% more massive than Earth, and it likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.

Source: Ars Technica

An algorithm can see what you've learned before going to sleep

Researcher fed the brain activity from sleeping subjects to a machine learning algorithm, and it was able to determine what the subject had learned before falling asleep. In other words, an algorithm was able to effectively ‘read’ electrical activity from sleeping brains and determine what they were memorising as a result.

Source: Motherboard

Elon Musk unveils Tesla Truck and Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk has unveiled the long-anticipated 'Tesla Semi' – the company's first electric articulated lorry. The vehicle has a range of 500 miles on a single charge, and will go into production in 2019. Unexpectedly, Tesla also revealed a new Roadster, which will have a range of close to 1,000km (620 miles) on a single charge and will do 0-100mph in 4.2 seconds.

Source: BBC

Arrivo plans to build 200mph hyperloop-lite track

Arrivo, the company founded by former Hyperloop One engineer Brogan BamBrogan, has announced a partnership with Colorado’s Department of Transportation. Arrivo will now build a magnetised track to transport existing vehicles, cargo sleds and specially designed vehicles alongside preexisting freeways at 200mph in the city of Denver.

Source: The Verge

Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot can now do backflips

It's been a busy week for Boston Dynamics, first the company revealed it SpotMini robot dog was getting an upgrade, and now the company has shared a video of its Atlas humanoid robot leaping from platforms and doing a backflip. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but it's not easy to make a robot do a backflip, so how Boston Dynamics has managed it is anyone's guess.

Source: WIRED

The all new Factor Magazine is here – your guide to how today, tomorrow and beyond are being shaped

Guess who’s back, back again.

It’s been a few months, but Factor has returned with a bigger and better format, bringing the same future news and discussion, but on a platform that you can read on any device.

We’ve been working towards this for a long, long time: this is how we’ve always wanted the magazine to look, and we’re so happy to share this with you. It can be viewed on any web browser, on anything from a mobile to a monster PC, and if you’re on a desktop or laptop, click the button in the bottom right-hand corner for the ultimate shiny reading experience. A digital magazine has never looked this good. Probably.

Unfortunately that means no more iPad app, but as you can easily read the magazine from an iPad web browser, we hope you’ll agree that what we’ve gained is so much better than what’s been lost.

So anyway, here it is: the Winter 2017 issue of Factor, the first issue of the quarterly version of the magazine.

In case any of you are worrying about us publishing the magazine quarterly, trust us you don’t need to. We’ve produced the biggest issue of Factor ever, so packed with futuristic awesomeness, that we’ve had to divide it into three sections: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond.

Today deals with the futuristic present, as much of what we think of as ‘the future’ already exists today. We look at how humanoid robots are being employed as co-workers, hear from the legendary Richard Stallman about the vanishing state of privacy and discover how automation is already taking jobs. Plus, we take a light hearted look at the futuristic world of Mr Tesla, Elon Musk, and provide our festive present suggestions in a bumper futuristic gift guide.

Moving on to Tomorrow, and it’s all about the world of the next few decades, as technologies that are in development now reach fruition and seep into our everyday lives. We consider how flying cars are inching towards reality, with a look at both Lilium and the newly announced UberAir, and find out how driverless delivery may be the first true instance of the self-driving future.  Plus, we also look at the Christmas dinners of the future, because why the hell not.

Finally, in Beyond we look at the way-out future that many of us probably won’t live to see, but is supremely cool to think about. We ask leading futurists to predict what’s in store in the 22nd century – not the most positive of pictures, unfortunately – and consider what jobs will remain in a post-automation world. Plus, we look at the potential first homes of the human race beyond the solar system, and check out how asteroid mining is set to shape off-earth development.

Take a look, and if you like what you see and read, please share the magazine with your friends, or tell us what you think. This is a completely free magazine, with not an ad in sight, so it’s always good to know that it’s worth the effort.