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.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.