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.

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”