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Automation, robots and the 'end of work' myth
January 16, 2018 by Tony Dundon And Debra Howcroft, The Conversation
© Phys.org 2003 - 2018, Science X network
Source; excerpts follow:


Can you imagine travelling to work in a robotic "Jonnycab" like the one predicted in the cult Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall? The image from 1990 is based on science fiction, but Mercedes Benz does have a semi-autonomous Driver Pilot system that it aims to install in the next five years and Uber is also waging on a self-driving future. Its partnership with Volvo has been seen as a boost to its ambitions to replace a fleet of self-employed drivers with autonomous vehicles.

Jonnycab might belong to futurology but if MIT academics Erik Brynjolfson and Andrew McAfee are right, we may all be rejoicing at the prospect of extended leisure time, as robotic technologies free us from the drudgery of work. Except for the fact that big business will be keeping its eye on the bottom line and will often be opting for fast and cheap alternatives.

No work, more play?

These are not new concepts. Karl Marx argued technology would help free workers from harsh labour and lead to a "reduction to working time". In the 1930s Bertrand Russell wrote of the benefits of "a little more idleness" and the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation could enable a shorter working week of less than 15 hours.

Claims that robotics will wipe out millions of jobs, from car manufacturing to banking are all too common. But some see a change to how we work running alongside these job losses.

Empowering or enslaving?

Read full editorial

When I saw the title of the editorial, I assumed it would focus entirely on the "loss of jobs" aspect of automation, about which there is anxiety in some sectors. It does that but they also brought in the "increased leisure time" wrinkle, perhaps to make the connection to earlier philosophers and economists? Probably not since the 2 academics briefly mentioned have a book to sell, about which I think the editorialists could been a bit more forward. (Brief book review here.)

Of course, the dark humor facet is that folks who are unemployed have plenty of "leisure time".

From an historic perspective, and for mostly developed countries, I think it's inarguable that technology (amongst other influences) has helped increase leisure time. The 40-hour work week, and x-weeks of vacation, have become fairly standard. Yes, due to technological advances, all sorts of jobs have fallen by the wayside: Cobblers, haberdashers, telephone operators, and toll-takers are just a few examples from a very long list. While losing one's position to automation may be personally disruptive (even traumatic), that doesn't mean that automation is per se a bad thing.

Easy example: Toll transponders, although replacing toll-takers, have reduced or eliminated toll plaza backups, and concomitant pollution and accidents. While I can empathize with job loss, millions of drivers are both happier and safer; and if toll-taking is your chosen career path, then it's time to learn new job skills.

Henry Ford is famous for taking the "assembly line" concept from meat-packers and applying it to automobile manufacturing. The result was an incredible increase in productivity and profitability, which he used in part to increase wages. Unfortunately, it also helped propagate jobs with mind-numbing repetition and no room for autonomy: You do "this" all day, every day, in exactly the same way, and you have to do it RIGHT every time. (Oh, and go faster.) Since many/most folks would chafe at such constrictions and expectations, Ford essentially created the NEED for robots a century ago.

Which (finally) gives the lie to the aforementioned "philosophers and economists"; after some initial improvements to the lives of workers, technology would not result in additional free time. Any human resources freed up would either be eliminated or applied elsewhere. There are still full work weeks available to (and required of) those willing to do the jobs; just don't expect those jobs to be particularly satisfying. Instead of fearing automation, make the effort to learn more valuable skills.

2 Comments On This Entry

I would liken it to when PC's came along and the first wave of PC-based "Office Automation" came along in the 1980s. Fast-forward 30 years:

- Secretaries are largely gone. The few that remain are now "Administrative Assistants/Personal Assistants/Exec Assistants".

- Receptionists and switchboard operators are gone. The few places that still have a "front desk" in the lobby? Usually unmanned, or maybe now there's an armed security guard there (ANOTHER "sign of the times").

- File Clerks/Mail Clerks/etc are gone, too. File your own damned papers. Heck, these days, what's a file cabinet? What's paper?


OF COURSE, now there are OTHER jobs. IT personnel, network installers, network SECURITY specialists, app developers, Helpdesk support personnel. Jobs that largely didn't exist back then. What's now IT was then "Data Processing".


PARADIGM THEN: If you were a college grad with a numb-nuts degree but no particular skill, pick a company and get a job in the mailroom. Stick with the company, show your loyalty, take opportunities as you get them, maybe take some night-school classes to get an MBA which is utterly worthless except for getting past the 'gate-keepers'. In 20 or 30 years you might work you way up to getting a key to the executive washroom. And in 40 or 50 years, maybe a gold watch on retirement.

Two seminal films: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Yes, of course, they were "just" movies; but inside every caricature is a kernel of truth.

PARADIGM NOW: If you're the same numb-nuts but at least marginally good with a computer, get an job in "IT". Constantly improve your skills, get every certification you can (MCSE, CCNA, BFE, whatever). Change companies every 5-8 years, always promising the next company what you can do, and then leaving on the ragged edge of being held accountable for not doing it. In 30 or 40 years, maybe "Chief Technology Officer" or, better yet, the next Carly Fiorina or whomever was CTO of Equifax.
You make important points here; thank you for sharing. I focused on technology eliminating human jobs; yet, technology also creates jobs. (I hinted at that with: “… learn more valuable skills.”) For example, advancements in medicine and bio-tech have created all sorts of jobs and opportunities that were unimagined just a few decades ago.

I haven’t seen those movies but now they’re on my list.

I’m nearing 27-years of employment at DaFirm but made several “sideways” advancements, over 10-years, to get there. Although professional mobility is important, don’t discount the value of loyalty; especially since disloyalty to one’s employer is typically a firing offense.
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