August 16, 2014


Here come the robots? (DICK POUNTAIN 14 August 2014, OpenDemocracy)

In the 1960s the prospect of the abolition of work by automated machinery could still be treated as a utopian goal by groups like the Situationist International: back then trade unions were sufficiently strong that it was taken for granted that wages could be maintained as working hours shrank. The neoliberal reversal of the last 30 years has ensured that labour lacks any such power nowadays (if it ever had it). The matter cropped up again in the early 1980s when it looked as though the personal computer "revolution" might do away with millions of white collar jobs, but that turned out to be a false alarm too. In fact PC operating systems and application programs were so primitive and unreliable that many new jobs had to be created in IT departments tasked with trying to keep them all running.

The latest version of this problem is being raised just now, thanks to dramatic advances in robots controlled by AI ("artificial intelligence") software. Google's driverless car is one uncanny example, and the giant online retailer Amazon has been rumbling about employing pilotless aerial drones to deliver ordered goods to customers. It seems extremely unlikely that the powers who control airspace will permit this any time soon, but Amazon more realistically talks about AI-driven automation of the location and retrieval of inventory in its chain of huge warehouses, which poses a genuine threat to jobs that are already scandalously underpaid. In a recent interview with the online magazine Slate, Professor Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business, was asked by interviewer Niall Firth "Are robots really taking our jobs?" and he replied by offering these three alternative scenarios:

Robots will take away jobs in the short term, but more will be created and a new equilibrium reached, as after the first Industrial Revolution

Robots will replace more and more professions and massive retraining will be essential to keep up employment

The sci-fi-horror scenario in which robots can perform almost all jobs and "you just won't need a lot of labour" 

McAfee believes that we'll see scenario three in his lifetime.

When asked further about any possible upside to this automation process, McAfee described the "bounty" he saw arising as a greater variety of stuff of higher quality at lower prices, and most importantly "you don't need money to buy access to Instagram, Facebook or Wikipedia". One doesn't need to have actually read Keynes to recognise that though McAfee might know a lot about robotics, his grasp of political economy is rather weaker. If employers "just won't need a lot of labour" then they just won't need to pay a lot of wages either, unless forced to do so by some agency whose identity is very far from obvious right now.

The obvious question, especially for conservatives, is :  how does it make any economic sense for businesses to pay high labor costs if they don't need to?  

There is certainly a coherent argument to be made that labor is good for the soul.  Much harder is crafting an argument that such makework jobs are good for anyone's soul or that they are good for business.

Posted by at August 16, 2014 6:53 AM

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